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Here’s what Florida’s massive toxic algae bloom looks like from space

A blue-green algae bloom near the St. Lucie Canal in Lake Okeechobee. The bloom has been blamed for affecting water quality downstream all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. (NASA Earth Observatory)

By now, you may have seen pictures of the foul-smelling, tourist-repelling, guacamole-thick algae that has been spreading along some South Florida waterways, including along the state’s “Treasure Coast.”

But images this week from the NASA Earth Observatory help underscore the massive size of the algae bloom, which has caused Florida’s governor to declare a state of emergency in some counties and ask for help from Washington.

The image above is of a portion of Lake Okeechobee, the state’s largest freshwater body of water, which has been inundated with toxic chemicals in recent months after a heavy year of rainfall. The shot was captured by NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite on July 2. Algae blooms are not uncommon in Lake Okeechobee during the summertime, given the runoff from farms and other pollution. As the lake’s water warms during summer, it creates an ideal environment for the growth of the blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria.

According to NASA, the algae bloom that grew this spring covered roughly 33 square miles of Lake Okeechobee. The conditions that gave rise to the bloom have persisted ever since, and have been blamed for affecting water quality downstream all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

How did the algae bloom spread far beyond the shores of Lake Okeechobee? In part, it’s because the Army Corps of Engineers, which monitors water levels in the lake, had to make a decision as water levels continued to rise from huge amounts of rainfall. The Corps discharged excess water from the lake into rivers and estuaries that lead to the coast in order to avoid putting thousands of people and the towns they live in near the lake at risk of life-threatening flooding.

That discharge flowed through the St. Lucie Canal on the lake’s eastern side into the Atlantic Ocean near Stuart, Fla. With it came the hideous algae that state officials are now scrambling to contain.

Last week, Gov. Rick Scott (R) declared a state of emergency in multiple counties after algae blooms appeared in local waterways. On Wednesday, Scott vowed to push state legislators to spend millions to fight the bloom, which residents have described as smelling like “a hundred dead animals.” He also appealed to President Obama to declare a federal emergency in the area, saying that the blooms have caused “havoc to our environment.”

The Corps of Engineers has said the huge amount of rain and runoff entering the lake this year “would cover the entire state of Delaware in two feet of water,” according to Jacksonville District Commander Col. Jason Kirk. Still, the agency has vowed to reduce flows of water from Lake Okeechobee into other bodies of water, in an effort to help communities affected by the algae bloom recover.

The algae and their toxins can disrupt ecosystems, choking the oxygen out of waterways and threatening fish, birds and other wildlife. It also can present risks to human health. Exposure to the slimy goop can cause skin irritation, nausea, vomiting and, in severe cases, liver problems.

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