Eutrophication (from Greek eutrophos, "well-nourished") is the process by which an entire body of water, or parts of it, becomes progressively enriched with minerals and nutrients. Water bodies with very low nutrient levels are termed oligotrophic and those with moderate nutrient levels are termed mesotrophic. Eutrophication may also be referred to as dystrophication or hypertrophication.
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Prior to human interference, this was, and continues to be, a very slow natural process in which nutrients, especially phosphorus compounds, accumulate in water bodies. These nutrients derive from degradation and solution of minerals in rocks and by the effect of lichens, mosses and fungi actively scavenging nutrients from rocks. Anthropogenic eutrophication is often a much more rapid process in which nutrients are added to a water body from any of a wide variety of polluting inputs including untreated or partially treated sewage, industrial wastewater and farming practices. Nutrient pollution, a form of water pollution, is a primary cause of eutrophication of surface waters, in which excess nutrients, usually nitrogen or phosphorus, stimulate algal growth.
The visible effect of eutrophication is often nuisance algal blooms that can cause substantial ecological degradation in the water body and in the streams flowing from that water body. This process may result in oxygen depletion of the water body after the bacterial degradation of the algae.
Mechanism of eutrophication
Eutrophication is a process of increasing bio-mass generation in a water-body caused by increasing concentrations of plant nutrients, most commonly phosphorus compounds and nitrate, or other nitrogen compounds. Increasing nutrient concentrations leads to increasing fecundity of plants, both macrophytes and in the plankton. As more plant material becomes available as a food resource, there are matching increases in the number of herbivorous animals and also carnivorous animals feeding on them. As the process continues, the bio-mass of the water body increases but biological diversity decreases. In the more severe eutrophication the bacterial degradation of the excess biomass results in oxygen consumption, which can create a state of hypoxia throughout the water body. Hypoxic zones are commonly found in deep water lakes in the summer season due to stratification into the cold oxygen-poor hypolimnion and the warm oxygen-rich epilimnion. Strongly eutrophic freshwaters can become hypoxic throughout their depth following severe algal blooms or macrophyte overgrowths.
According to Ullmann's Encyclopedia, "the primary limiting factor for eutrophication is phosphate." The availability of phosphorus generally promotes excessive plant growth and decay, favouring simple algae and plankton over other more complicated plants, and causes a severe reduction in water quality. Phosphorus is a necessary nutrient for plants to live, and is the limiting factor for plant growth in many freshwater ecosystems. Phosphate adheres tightly to soil, so it is mainly transported by erosion. Once translocated to lakes, the extraction of phosphate into water is slow, hence the difficulty of reversing the effects of eutrophication. However, numerous literature reports that nitrogen is the primary limiting nutrient for the accumulation of algal biomass.
The sources of these excess phosphates are phosphates in detergent, industrial/domestic run-offs, and fertilizers. With the phasing out of phosphate-containing detergents in the 1970s, industrial/domestic run-off and agriculture have emerged as the dominant contributors to eutrophication.
Cultural or anthropogenic eutrophication is the process that speeds up natural eutrophication because of human activity. Due to clearing of land and building of towns and cities, land runoff is accelerated and more nutrients such as phosphates and nitrate are supplied to lakes and rivers, and then to coastal estuaries and bays. Extra nutrients are also supplied by treatment plants, golf courses, fertilizers, farms (including fish farms), as well as untreated sewage in many countries.
Lakes and rivers
When macrophytes and algae die, they decompose and the nutrients contained in that organic matter are converted into inorganic form by microorganisms. This decomposition process consumes oxygen, which reduces the concentration of dissolved oxygen. The depleted oxygen levels in turn may lead to fish kills and a range of other effects reducing biodiversity. Nutrients may become concentrated in an anoxic zone and may only be made available again during autumn turn-over or in conditions of turbulent flow. The dead algae and the organic load carried by the water inflows in to the lake settle at its bottom and undergoes anaerobic digestion releasing greenhouse gases such as methane and CO2. Some of the methane gas may be oxidised by anaerobic methane oxidation bacteria such as Methylococcus capsulatus which in turn may provide a food source for zooplankton. Thus a self-sustaining biological process can take place to generate primary food source for the phytoplankton and zooplankton depending on the availability of adequate dissolved oxygen in the water bodies.
Enhanced growth of aquatic vegetation, phytoplankton and algal blooms disrupts normal functioning of the ecosystem, causing a variety of problems such as a lack of oxygen needed for fish and shellfish to survive. Eutrophication also decreases the value of rivers, lakes and aesthetic enjoyment. Health problems can occur where eutrophic conditions interfere with drinking water treatment.
Human activities can accelerate the rate at which nutrients enter ecosystems. Runoff from agriculture and development, pollution from septic systems and sewers, sewage sludge spreading, and other human-related activities increase the flow of both inorganic nutrients and organic substances into ecosystems. Elevated levels of atmospheric compounds of nitrogen can increase nitrogen availability. Phosphorus is often regarded as the main culprit in cases of eutrophication in lakes subjected to "point source" pollution from sewage pipes. The concentration of algae and the trophic state of lakes correspond well to phosphorus levels in water. Studies conducted in the Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario have shown a relationship between the addition of phosphorus and the rate of eutrophication. This is because the growth of nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria is reliant on phosphorus concentration levels in lakes. Humankind has increased the rate of phosphorus cycling on Earth by four times, mainly due to agricultural fertilizer production and application. Between 1950 and 1995, an estimated 600,000,000 tonnes of phosphorus was applied to Earth's surface, primarily on croplands.
Although eutrophication is commonly caused by human activities, it can also be a natural process, particularly in lakes. Paleolimnologists now recognise that climate change, geology, and other external influences are also critical in regulating the natural productivity of lakes. A few lakes also demonstrate the reverse process (meiotrophication), becoming less nutrient rich with time as nutrient poor inputs slowly elute the nutrient richer water mass of the lake. This process may be seen in artificial lakes and reservoirs which tend to be highly eutrophic on first filling but may become more oligotrophic with time. The main difference between natural and anthropogenic eutrophication is that the natural process is very slow, occurring on geological time scales.
Eutrophication is a common phenomenon in coastal waters. In contrast to freshwater systems where phosphorus is often the limiting nutrient, nitrogen is more commonly the key limiting nutrient of marine waters; thus, nitrogen levels have greater importance to understanding eutrophication problems in salt water. Estuaries, as the interface between freshwater and saltwater, can be both phosphorus and nitrogen limited and commonly exhibit symptoms of eutrophication. Eutrophication in estuaries often results in bottom water hypoxia/anoxia, leading to fish kills and habitat degradation. Upwelling in coastal systems also promotes increased productivity by conveying deep, nutrient-rich waters to the surface, where the nutrients can be assimilated by algae. Examples of anthropogenic sources of nitrogen-rich pollution to coastal waters include seacage fish farming and discharges of ammonia from the production of coke from coal.
The World Resources Institute has identified 375 hypoxic coastal zones in the world, concentrated in coastal areas in Western Europe, the Eastern and Southern coasts of the US, and East Asia, particularly Japan.
In addition to runoff from land, fish farming wastes and industrial ammonia discharges, atmospheric fixed nitrogen can be an important nutrient source in the open ocean. A study in 2008 found that this could account for around one third of the ocean's external (non-recycled) nitrogen supply, and up to 3% of the annual new marine biological production. It has been suggested that accumulating reactive nitrogen in the environment may prove as serious as putting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Terrestrial ecosystems are subject to similarly adverse impacts from eutrophication. Increased nitrates in soil are frequently undesirable for plants. Many terrestrial plant species are endangered as a result of soil eutrophication, such as the majority of orchid species in Europe. Meadows, forests, and bogs are characterized by low nutrient content and slowly growing species adapted to those levels, so they can be overgrown by faster growing and more competitive species. In meadows, tall grasses that can take advantage of higher nitrogen levels may change the area so that natural species may be lost. Species-rich fens can be overtaken by reed or reedgrass species. Forest undergrowth affected by run-off from a nearby fertilized field can be turned into a nettle and bramble thicket.
Chemical forms of nitrogen are most often of concern with regard to eutrophication, because plants have high nitrogen requirements so that additions of nitrogen compounds will stimulate plant growth. Nitrogen is not readily available in soil because N2, a gaseous form of nitrogen, is very stable and unavailable directly to higher plants. Terrestrial ecosystems rely on microbial nitrogen fixation to convert N2 into other forms such as nitrates. However, there is a limit to how much nitrogen can be utilized. Ecosystems receiving more nitrogen than the plants require are called nitrogen-saturated. Saturated terrestrial ecosystems then can contribute both inorganic and organic nitrogen to freshwater, coastal, and marine eutrophication, where nitrogen is also typically a limiting nutrient. This is also the case with increased levels of phosphorus. However, because phosphorus is generally much less soluble than nitrogen, it is leached from the soil at a much slower rate than nitrogen. Consequently, phosphorus is much more important as a limiting nutrient in aquatic systems.
Eutrophication was recognized as a water pollution problem in European and North American lakes and reservoirs in the mid-20th century. Since then, it has become more widespread. Surveys showed that 54% of lakes in Asia are eutrophic; in Europe, 53%; in North America, 48%; in South America, 41%; and in Africa, 28%. In South Africa, a study by the CSIR using remote sensing has shown more than 60% of the reservoirs surveyed were eutrophic. Some South African scientists believe that this figure might be higher with the main source being dysfunctional sewage works that produce more than 4 billion litres a day of untreated, or at best partially treated, sewage effluent that discharges into rivers and reservoirs. Even with good secondary treatment, most final effluents from sewage treatment works contain substantial concentrations of nitrogen as nitrate, nitrite or ammonia. Removal of these nutrients is an expensive and often difficult process.
Many ecological effects can arise from stimulating primary production, but there are three particularly troubling ecological impacts: decreased biodiversity, changes in species composition and dominance, and toxicity effects.
- Increased biomass of phytoplankton
- Toxic or inedible phytoplankton species
- Increases in blooms of gelatinous zooplankton
- Increased biomass of benthic and epiphytic algae
- Changes in macrophyte species composition and biomass
- Decreases in water transparency (increased turbidity)
- Colour, smell, and water treatment problems
- Dissolved oxygen depletion
- Increased incidences of fish kills
- Loss of desirable fish species
- Reductions in harvestable fish and shellfish
- Decreases in perceived aesthetic value of the water body
When an ecosystem experiences an increase in nutrients, primary producers reap the benefits first. In aquatic ecosystems, species such as algae experience a population increase (called an algal bloom). Algal blooms limit the sunlight available to bottom-dwelling organisms and cause wide swings in the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. Oxygen is required by all aerobically respiring plants and animals and it is replenished in daylight by photosynthesizing plants and algae. Under eutrophic conditions, dissolved oxygen greatly increases during the day, but is greatly reduced after dark by the respiring algae and by microorganisms that feed on the increasing mass of dead algae. When dissolved oxygen levels decline to hypoxic levels, fish and other marine animals suffocate. As a result, creatures such as fish, shrimp, and especially immobile bottom dwellers die off. In extreme cases, anaerobic conditions ensue, promoting growth of bacteria. Zones where this occurs are known as dead zones.
New species invasion
Eutrophication may cause competitive release by making abundant a normally limiting nutrient. This process causes shifts in the species composition of ecosystems. For instance, an increase in nitrogen might allow new, competitive species to invade and out-compete original inhabitant species. This has been shown to occur in New England salt marshes. In Europe and Asia, the common carp frequently lives in naturally Eutrophic or Hypereutrophic areas, and is adapted to living in such conditions. The eutrophication of areas outside its natural range partially explain the fish's success in colonising these areas after being introduced.
Some algal blooms resulting from eutrophication, otherwise called "harmful algal blooms", are toxic to plants and animals. Toxic compounds can make their way up the food chain, resulting in animal mortality. Freshwater algal blooms can pose a threat to livestock. When the algae die or are eaten, neuro- and hepatotoxins are released which can kill animals and may pose a threat to humans. An example of algal toxins working their way into humans is the case of shellfish poisoning. Biotoxins created during algal blooms are taken up by shellfish (mussels, oysters), leading to these human foods acquiring the toxicity and poisoning humans. Examples include paralytic, neurotoxic, and diarrhoetic shellfish poisoning. Other marine animals can be vectors for such toxins, as in the case of ciguatera, where it is typically a predator fish that accumulates the toxin and then poisons humans.
At the most extreme levels, eutrophication is identifiable by sight and smell.
When conditions become repulsive and drastic steps are required to control obnoxious growths of algae, then there is no longer need to marshall experts or scientific equipment to explain what has happened.
However, as water bodies change their chemical and biological status, identifying the scale and the causes of the problem are prerequisites to identifying a remediation strategy.
Within eutrophic water bodies, nutrients are in constant flux and a determination of concentrations of N and P may not provide good evidence of the current eutrophic state. In early studies on the Great Lakes,total solids, calcium, sodium, potassium, sulfate, and chloride provided good supporting evidence of eutrophication even though they were not themselves implicated. These ions were indicative of general anthropogenic inputs and provided good surrogates for nutrient inputs
Qualitative assessments of water based on obvious signs of eutrophication such as changes to the species of algae present or their relative abundance will typically be too late to avoid the damage caused by eutrophication to biotic diversity
Quantitative assessments at regular intervals of key chemical and biological indicators can provide statistically valid data for identifying the earliest onset of eutrophication and monitoring its progress. Typical parameters used include Chlorophyll-a, total nitrogen, total and dissolved phosphorus, biological or chemical oxygen demand and secchi depth level.
Prevention and reversal
Eutrophication poses a problem not only to ecosystems, but to humans as well. Reducing eutrophication should be a key concern when considering future policy, and a sustainable solution for everyone, including farmers and ranchers, seems feasible. While eutrophication does pose problems, humans should be aware that natural runoff (which causes algal blooms in the wild) is common in ecosystems and should thus not reverse nutrient concentrations beyond normal levels. Cleanup measures have been mostly, but not completely, successful. Finnish phosphorus removal measures started in the mid-1970s and have targeted rivers and lakes polluted by industrial and municipal discharges. These efforts have had a 90% removal efficiency. Still, some targeted point sources did not show a decrease in runoff despite reduction efforts.
Minimizing nonpoint pollution
Nonpoint pollution is the most difficult source of nutrients to manage. The literature suggests, though, that when these sources are controlled, eutrophication decreases. The following steps are recommended to minimize the amount of pollution that can enter aquatic ecosystems from ambiguous sources.
Riparian buffer zones
Studies show that intercepting non-point pollution between the source and the water is a successful means of prevention. Riparian buffer zones are interfaces between a flowing body of water and land, and have been created near waterways in an attempt to filter pollutants; sediment and nutrients are deposited here instead of in water. Creating buffer zones near farms and roads is another possible way to prevent nutrients from traveling too far. Still, studies have shown that the effects of atmospheric nitrogen pollution can reach far past the buffer zone. This suggests that the most effective means of prevention is from the primary source.
Laws regulating the discharge and treatment of sewage have led to dramatic nutrient reductions to surrounding ecosystems, but it is generally agreed that a policy regulating agricultural use of fertilizer and animal waste must be imposed. In Japan the amount of nitrogen produced by livestock is adequate to serve the fertilizer needs for the agriculture industry. Thus, it is not unreasonable to command livestock owners to collect animal waste from the field, which when left stagnant will leach into ground water.
Policy concerning the prevention and reduction of eutrophication can be broken down into four sectors: Technologies, public participation, economic instruments, and cooperation. The term technology is used loosely, referring to a more widespread use of existing methods rather than an appropriation of new technologies. As mentioned before, nonpoint sources of pollution are the primary contributors to eutrophication, and their effects can be easily minimized through common agricultural practices. Reducing the amount of pollutants that reach a watershed can be achieved through the protection of its forest cover, reducing the amount of erosion leeching into a watershed. Also, through the efficient, controlled use of land using sustainable agricultural practices to minimize land degradation, the amount of soil runoff and nitrogen-based fertilizers reaching a watershed can be reduced. Waste disposal technology constitutes another factor in eutrophication prevention. Because a major contributor to the nonpoint source nutrient loading of water bodies is untreated domestic sewage, it is necessary to provide treatment facilities to highly urbanized areas, particularly those in underdeveloped nations, in which treatment of domestic waste water is a scarcity. The technology to safely and efficiently reuse waste water, both from domestic and industrial sources, should be a primary concern for policy regarding eutrophication.
The role of the public is a major factor for the effective prevention of eutrophication. In order for a policy to have any effect, the public must be aware of their contribution to the problem, and ways in which they can reduce their effects. Programs instituted to promote participation in the recycling and elimination of wastes, as well as education on the issue of rational water use are necessary to protect water quality within urbanized areas and adjacent water bodies.
Economic instruments, "which include, among others, property rights, water markets, fiscal and financial instruments, charge systems and liability systems, are gradually becoming a substantive component of the management tool set used for pollution control and water allocation decisions." Incentives for those who practice clean, renewable, water management technologies are an effective means of encouraging pollution prevention. By internalizing the costs associated with the negative effects on the environment, governments are able to encourage a cleaner water management.
Because a body of water can have an effect on a range of people reaching far beyond that of the watershed, cooperation between different organizations is necessary to prevent the intrusion of contaminants that can lead to eutrophication. Agencies ranging from state governments to those of water resource management and non-governmental organizations, going as low as the local population, are responsible for preventing eutrophication of water bodies. In the United States, the most well known inter-state effort to prevent eutrophication is the Chesapeake Bay.
Nitrogen testing and modeling
Soil Nitrogen Testing (N-Testing) is a technique that helps farmers optimize the amount of fertilizer applied to crops. By testing fields with this method, farmers saw a decrease in fertilizer application costs, a decrease in nitrogen lost to surrounding sources, or both. By testing the soil and modeling the bare minimum amount of fertilizer are needed, farmers reap economic benefits while reducing pollution.
There has been a study that found that organically fertilized fields "significantly reduce harmful nitrate leaching" compared to conventionally fertilized fields. However, a more recent study found that eutrophication impacts are in some cases higher from organic production than they are from conventional production.
Shellfish in estuaries
One proposed solution to stop and reverse eutrophication in estuaries is to restore shellfish populations, such as oysters and mussels. Oyster reefs remove nitrogen from the water column and filter out suspended solids, subsequently reducing the likelihood or extent of harmful algal blooms or anoxic conditions. Filter feeding activity is considered beneficial to water quality by controlling phytoplankton density and sequestering nutrients, which can be removed from the system through shellfish harvest, buried in the sediments, or lost through denitrification. Foundational work toward the idea of improving marine water quality through shellfish cultivation was conducted by Odd Lindahl et al., using mussels in Sweden. In the United States, shellfish restoration projects have been conducted on the East, West and Gulf coasts. See nutrient pollution for an extended explanation of nutrient remediation using shellfish.
Seaweed aquaculture offers an opportunity to mitigate, and adapt to climate change. Seaweed, such as kelp, also absorbs phosphorus and nitrogen and is thus useful to remove excessive nutrients from polluted parts of the sea. Some cultivated seaweeds have a very high productivity and could absorb large quantities of N, P, CO2, producing large amount of O2 have an excellent effect on decreasing eutrophication. It is believed that seaweed cultivation in large scale should be a good solution to the eutrophication problem in coastal waters.
Geo-engineering in lakes
Geo-engineering is the manipulation of biogeochemical processes, usually the phosphorus cycle, to achieve a desired ecological response in the ecosystem. Geo-engineering techniques typically uses materials able to chemically inactivate the phosphorus available for organisms (i.e. phosphate) in the water column and also block the phosphate release from the sediment (internal loading). Phosphate is one of the main contributing factors to algal growth, mainly cyanobacteria, so once phosphate is reduced the algal is not able to overgrow. Thus, geo-engineering materials is used to speed-up the recovery of eutrophic water bodies and manage algal bloom. There are several phosphate sorbents in the literature, from metal salts (e.g. alum, aluminium sulfate,) minerals, natural clays and local soils, industrial waste products, modified clays (e.g. lanthanum modified bentonite) and others. The phosphate sorbent is commonly applied in the surface of the water body and it sinks to the bottom of the lake reducing phosphate, such sorbents have been applied worldwide to manage eutrophication and algal bloom.
United Nations framework
The United Nations framework for Sustainable Development Goals recognizes the damaging effects of eutrophication upon marine environments and has established a timeline for creating an Index of Coastal Eutrophication and Floating Plastic Debris Density (ICEP). The Sustainable Development Goal 14 specifically has a target to prevent and significantly reduce pollution of all kinds including nutrient pollution (eutrophication) by 2025.
- Algal bloom – Rapid increase or accumulation in the population of planktonic algae
- Anaerobic digestion – Processes by which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen
- Auxanography – The study of the effects of changes in environment on the growth of microorganisms, by means of auxanograms
- Biogeochemical cycle – Cycling of substances through biotic and abiotic compartments of Earth
- Coastal fish
- Drainage basin – Area of land where precipitation collects and drains off into a common outlet
- Fish kill
- Hypoxia (environmental) – Low environmental oxygen levels
- Hypoxia in fish – Response of fish to environmental hypoxia
- Lake Erie
- Lake ecosystem
- Limnology – The science of inland aquatic ecosystems
- Nitrogen cycle – Biogeochemical cycle by which nitrogen is converted into various chemical forms
- No-till farming – Agricultural method which does not disturb soil through tillage.
- Nutrient pollution
- Olszewski tube – A pipe designed to bring oxygen-poor water from the bottom of a lake to the top
- Outwelling – Hypothetical process by which coastal salt marshes and mangroves produce an excess amount of carbon which moves to surrounding areas
- Residual sodium carbonate index
- Riparian zone – Interface between land and a river or stream
- Soda lake – Lake that is strongly alkaline
- Upland and lowland (freshwater ecology)
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