Eutrophication (pronounced you-tro-fi-KAY-shun) is a natural process that occurs in an aging lake or pond as that body of water gradually builds up its concentration of plant nutrients. Cultural or artificial eutrophication occurs when human activity introduces increased amounts of these nutrients, which speed up plant growth and eventually choke the lake of all of its animal life.
In nature, eutrophication is a common phenomenon in freshwater ecosystems and is really a part of the normal aging process of many lakes and ponds. Some never experience it because of a lack of warmth and light, but many do. Over time, these bodies of freshwater change in terms of how productive or fertile they are. While this is different for each lake or pond, those that are naturally fed rich nutrients from a stream or river or some other natural source are described as "eutrophic," meaning they are nutrient-rich and therefore abundant in plant and animal life. Eutrophication is not necessarily harmful or bad, and the word itself is often translated from the Greek as meaning "well nourished" or "good food." However, eutrophication can be speeded up artificially, and then the lake and its inhabitants eventually suffer as the input of nutrients increases far beyond what the natural capacity of the lake should be.
Words to Know
Algae: Single-celled or multicellular plants or plantlike organisms that contain chlorophyll, thus making their own food by photosynthesis. Algae grow mainly in water.
Nitrate: A salt or ester of nitric acid, which is a transparent corrosive liquid composed of nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen.
Phosphate: A salt or ester of a phosphoric acid, which is any of three acids that are formed when the oxide of phosphorus reacts with water.
Too much of a good thing
Natural eutrophication is usually a fairly slow and gradual process, occurring over a period of many centuries. It occurs naturally when for some reason, production and consumption within the lake do not cancel each other out and the lake slowly becomes overfertilized. While not rare in nature, it does not happen frequently or quickly. However, artificial or human-caused eutrophication has become so common that the word eutrophication by itself has come to mean a very harmful increase and acceleration of nutrients. It is as if something receives too much fertilizer or has too much of what is a good thing.
Humans increase the rate of eutrophication
Human activities almost always result in the creation of waste, and many of these waste products often contain nitrates and phosphates. Nitrates are a compound of nitrogen, and most are produced by bacteria. Phosphates are phosphorous compounds. Both nitrates and phosphates are absorbed by plants and are needed for growth. However, the human use of detergents and chemical fertilizers has greatly increased the amount of nitrates and phosphates that are washed into our lakes and ponds. When this occurs in a sufficient quantity, they act like fertilizer for plants and algae and speed up their rate of growth.
Algae are a group of plantlike organisms that live in water and can make their own food through photosynthesis (using sunlight to make food from simple chemicals). When additional phosphates are added to a body of water, the plants begin to grow explosively and algae takes off or "blooms." In the process, the plants and algae consume greater amounts of oxygen in the water, robbing fish and other species of necessary oxygen.
All algae eventually die, and when they do, oxygen is required by bacteria in order for them to decompose or break down the dead algae. A cycle then begins in which more bacteria decompose more dead algae,
consuming even more oxygen in the process. The bacteria then release more phosphates back into the water, which feed more algae. As levels of oxygen in the body of water become lower, species such as fish and mollusks literally suffocate to death.
Eventually, the lake or pond begins to fill in and starts to be choked with plant growth. As the plants die and turn to sediment that sinks, the lake bottom starts to rise. The waters grow shallower and finally the body of water is filled completely and disappears. This also can happen to wetlands, which are already shallow. Eventually, there are shrubs growing where a body of water used to be.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Lake Erie was the most publicized example of eutrophication. Called a "dead lake," the smallest and shallowest of the five Great Lakes was swamped for decades with nutrients from heavily developed agricultural and urban lands. As a result, plant and algae growth choked out most other species living in the lake, and left the beaches unusable due to the smell of decaying algae that washed up on the shores. New pollution controls for sewage treatment plants and agricultural methods by the United States and Canada led to drastic reductions in the amount of nutrients entering the lake. Forty years later, while still not totally free of pollutants and nutrients, Lake Erie is again a biologically thriving lake.
[ See also Lake ]