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Alaska's mysterious orange goo actually just another fungus among us

Craig Medred

More than a week after a so-called "orange goo" hit beaches near the village of Kivalina in Northwest Alaska, causing an Internet stir, scientists have concluded it wasn't really a goo after all. It just sort of looked that way.

The substance in question is a fungal spore of the type that usually causes plant rust, a disease that causes a rust-like appearance on leaves and stems. The scientists say a preliminary conclusion that the phenomenon was caused by the eggs of some sort of crustacean was wrong. Eggs and spores look a lot alike under a microscope.

The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration announced that while the material in question is now known to be natural and non-threatening, scientists remain unsure of exactly what kind of spore they are looking at. A press release from NOAA quoted spore specialist Steve Morton at the agency's  Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research, in Charleston, S.C., saying this:

"At this point, the best identification we can give to as the origin of these spores is a rust fungus. The spores are unlike others we and our network of specialists have examined; however, many rust fungi of the Arctic tundra have yet to be identified."

Budgets for studying fungi in the Arctic are almost non-existent. The few botanists studying plants there say they can hardly find money for studies. A whole world of undiscovered phenomenon is out there. NOAA said a team working with Morton is continuing to try to sort out this one.

There are about 7,800 known species of rust fungi. Nobody knows how many yet to be discovered species might be out there. The fungi can be spread across great distances by wind or water. No one has any idea where these came from although the orange tint to the water was reported not just in Kivalina but along the Bering Sea coast in places for more than 100 miles.

It attracted the most attention in Kivalina, a subsistence hunting and fishing community where most of the people are Inupiat Eskimos, because of the presence of the giant Red Dog zinc mine just to the east. Kivalina residents live in fear of the mine polluting their air or water, though the facility's environmental emissions are closely monitored.

There is no indication the fungal outbreak had anything whatsoever to do with the mine. NOAA scientists do, however, hope to at some point identify exactly what species of spore it was which might enable them to make a guess at where from it came.

More information will be posted on the Alaska Fisheries Science Center website as it becomes available as part of what NOAA says is its continuing mission "to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com