Black goop afloat off Arctic coast identified as algae

ALGAE: Still, experts don't know why there's so much of it.

July 16, 2009 

A sample of the giant black mystery blob that Wainwright hunters discovered this month floating in the Chukchi Sea has been identified.

It looks to be a stringy batch of algae. Not bunker oil seeping from an aging, sunken ship. Not a sea monster.

"We got the results back from the lab today," said Ed Meggert of the Department of Environmental Conservation in Fairbanks. "It was marine algae."

Miles of the thick, dark gunk had been spotted floating between Barrow and Wainwright, prompting North Slope Borough officials and the Coast Guard to investigate last week. A sample was sent to a DEC lab in Anchorage, where workers looked at it under a microscope and declared it some kind of simple plant -- an algae, Meggert said.

The goo fast became an Alaska mystery. And the new findings still leave questions unanswered: Why is there so much of it in a region where people say they've never seen anything quite like it?

Local hunters and whalers didn't know what to make of it. The Coast Guard labeled the substance biological, but knew little else. The stuff had hairy strands in it and was tangled with jellyfish, said a borough official.

Terry Whitledge is director of the Institute of Marine Science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He hasn't had a chance to look at the DEC's sample yet, but a friend with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration e-mailed him a picture of the gunk.

"Filamentous algae," he concluded.

Filamentous?

"It means it's just stringy."

Whitledge said he doesn't know why an unprecedented bloom of algae appeared off the Arctic coast.

"You'll find these kind of algae grow in areas that are shallow enough that light can get to the bottom ... If you had a rocky area along the coast, you could have this type of algae."

It could have been discharged from a river, he said, flushed out by runoff from spring breakup and melting ice. But that's just speculation, he warned.

The North Slope Borough took samples of the stuff too, for a separate round of testing, said Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Terry Hasenauer.

The results of the state's analysis came in at 10:30 a.m. Thursday. It was the last day on the job for Meggert, the retiring on-scene coordinator.

"Had it been petroleum, then we really would have had our work cut out for us," he said.

That was the initial fear -- that an oil spill had appeared in the Chukchi Sea, or maybe the blob was oil bubbling up from a sunken vessel or underwater seam.

The goo didn't fit any pattern that made it easy to identify from afar, Meggert said. "First of all, it was at the end of the Earth. Pretty hard to get to.

"While we've seen some algae bloom from time to time, we really haven't seen something quite like this."

The color, in particular, didn't make sense, he said. You might expect to see green or reddish algae but not this black, viscous gunk. Whitledge, with the university, said one possible explanation is that the algae has partially decomposed into a darker hue.

He looks forward to the university examining the sample too, to identify exactly what kind of algae it is.

It's worth noting that Alaska Natives in the region reportedly hadn't seen anything like it before, he said.

But asked if the blob's surprise appearance could be connected to global warming, Whitledge hesitated to draw a link.

"The water's actually very cold this year compared to other years," he said.


Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adnvillage. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

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