Wigdahl-Perry to focus talk on effects of algae, humans on lakes


Mariia Novoselia
Staff writer

Biologist Courtney Wigdahl-Perry has seen it all when it comes to algae blooms — the good, the bad and the scientific — and she’s ready to talk about it all.

Wigdahl-Perry embarked on her lake research journey in 2003, when she was an undergraduate student. During a summer fellowship that year, she studied high-elevation lakes in Montana and Wyoming with faculty members of University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. 

She took an interest in studying lakes, and the algae that were living there, and how humans’ interaction affects the ecosystem of the lake.

Now, 20 years later, Wigdahl-Perry is associate professor in SUNY Fredonia’s biology department, and she will discuss algal blooms in Chautauqua Lake and her current research on the subject at 9:15 a.m. today in the Hurlbut Church Sanctuary in a program co-presented by the Chautauqua Climate Change Initiative and the Chautauqua Science Group.

The list of reasons why harmful algal blooms (HABs) are an issue worth not only studying but also mitigating is extensive, Wigdahl-Perry said. 

First, they affect the way humans interact with lakes where HABs are prevalent. This, she said, includes the services that lakes provide to humans, like drinking water, recreational activity, economics and tourism.

“There’s a whole range of things that we get from the lake just by it being there and being a functional system,” Wigdahl-Perry said.

For example, toxic blooms make water unsuitable for drinking and dangerous for various activities.

Second, HABs can negatively affect the whole ecosystem of a lake. Low-oxygen conditions tend to occur following bloom events, Wigdahl-Perry said, because bacteria use oxygen to complete the process of decomposing HABs. This can lead to a “fish kill.” This is especially true for deeper parts of a lake, she said. Fish kills are a significant factor in changing the food web.

Despite this, Wigdahl-Perry said eliminating algae is not what humans should be after.

“It’s sort of my personal mission to help people understand that we don’t want to get rid of all the algae,” she said. “We don’t want a swimming pool. We want a living, dynamic system.”

Often, Wigdahl-Perry said, people confuse algal blooms and cyanobacteria, then “lump” them together. Cyanobacteria, however, “are a whole different group of organisms that are really interesting and a normal healthy part of the system,” she said.

Similarly, without algae blooms, which are the base of the food web and can turn energy from the sun into sugar, Chautauqua Lake would be neither a world-class muskie fishery nor “vibrant, lively, (and) dynamic.”

While the existence of cyanobacteria and algae blooms is not a problem, Wigdahl-Perry said, human activities such as excessive lawn fertilization can push algae and cyanobacteria to grow excessively, creating all of the aforementioned problems.

She said what hooked her on lake research – and helped sustain the interest over the years – was the element of interconnectedness between lakes and the community. 

Understanding how people are being affected by blooms, as well as how they are contributing to bloom conditions, is “like a big puzzle,” Wigdahl-Perry said.

“It’s a fun place to sit – you have a lot of different questions you can ask, in terms of science,” she said.

Wigdahl-Perry’s research also touches on spatial dynamics of algae blooms and drivers that contribute to harmful blooms.

She said with her talk this morning, she wants to bring attention to why so much research is being carried out specifically on Chautauqua Lake: “There are some really good reasons for that.”

Noting the importance of community, Wigdahl-Perry said it is imperative to remember that everybody contributes to lake health, not just those people who live on the waterfront.

“Even if you can’t see the lake,” she said, “your actions can affect it.”


The author Mariia Novoselia

Mariia Novoselia is a senior at Western Kentucky University studying journalism with a minor in political science. Born and raised in Odesa, Ukraine, she previously attended Odesa I. I. Mechnikov National University. She has experience writing for student publications and interning at a local newspaper in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Summer 2023 will be her first season on the grounds of Chautauqua, where she will be covering environmental issues. Mariia is also a music enthusiast, and when not writing, she enjoys singing and playing the guitar.