MARINETTE — During the last few weeks of August, Wisconsin saw a large amount of blue-green algae coming into bloom around the state. After a report of three healthy dogs in North Carolina dying minutes after swimming in a lake went viral online, the concern in Wisconsin grew quickly, as Lake Winnebago, Lake Mendota and other bodies of water were largely covered with it. Fortunately, according to Dr. Renee Richer, the campus biologist at UW-Green Bay, Marinette Campus, the algae hasn’t expanded to our area yet, however she said it could in the future.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services said blue-green algae could’ve been a factor in three reported cow deaths last year. The DHS also said it received several reports of illnesses possibly related to it.

According to blue-green algae isn’t actually algae, but a kind of bacteria called cyanobacteria, often referred to as pond scum. “Traditionally it was called blue-green algae, so it’s a holdover, but now we have a better understanding and know that it’s a photosynthetic bacteria,” she said. When it’s in the water, Richer said it gives the water a pea-soup color.

She said they’re dangerous because the different species of cyanobacteria produce very harmful chemicals, ranging from skin irritants to neurotoxins. “They can produce a very potent liver toxins, which is deadly and has been deadly to humans and non-human animals. One of (the neurotoxins) is known to have a very fast death factor, and it acts in much the same way as sarin gas,” she said.

She also said there are other neurotoxins produced by cyanobacteria that can bioaccumulate in the food chain and act more slowly. These toxins have been known to contribute in some cases to ALS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

“This is a growing problem in the Great Lakes, specifically in Lake Erie, in part because of climate change,” she said. The western end of Lake Erie usually has the worst accumulation of blue-green algae because it’s shallower, which makes the water warm up faster and gives the bacteria a habitable environment. She said as the climate gets warmer, it becomes easier for the bacteria to find suitable places to live. She also said increased rainfall washes phosphorus and nitrogen from fields into the lakes, which also helps the bacteria grow.

“The Green Bay is very interesting because it regularly has cyanobacterial blooms, but it’s only one of three areas monitored by NASA,” Richer said.

Richer said the bacteria are extremophiles, so they prefer to live in extreme climates. She said a large amount of her research on cyanobacteria was done in the Arabian desert, where many of the same issues were occurring.

Richer will be speaking on the subject of cyanobacteria in a panel discussion at this year’s Freeland Film Festival in Green Lake, Wis., Sept. 13-15. She also said she is planning on giving a talk at UW-Green Bay, Marinette Campus, on the topic in November.