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NOAA Analytical Response Team

National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science

Alaska Fisheries Science Center

Mysterious "Orange Goo" Washes Ashore in Northwest Alaska in Early August

August 29, 2011
orange goo and up close scanning electron microscope image

The image on the left shows the spores of the orange substance. The image on the right is a single spore examined up close by a scanning electron microscope.

In early August, a mysterious "orange goo" substance washed ashore in the remote Inupiaq village of Kivalina along Alaska's northwest coast. The unusual phenomenon generated a lot of media speculation and troubled residents of the village, who feared contamination of their water tanks and berry harvest. To determine the nature of this substance, Alaska's Department of Environmental Control sent samples to NOAA's Analytical Response Team in Charleston, S.C., for thorough analysis and verification.

Drawing upon their knowledge and using a suite of tools, the team determined that the substance in Alaska was spores from one or many rust fungi. However, the scientists cannot determine exactly which of the 7,800 known rust fungi species the mass could belong to.

"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," said Steve Morton, Ph.D., of the NOAA Analytical Response Team.

Rust is a plant disease that causes a reddish stain on leaves and stems. Rust fungi reproduce with lightweight spores that can blow great distances over land and water. Rusts, unlike some other types of fungi, infect only plants and not people. Airborne spores, however, can contribute to respiratory disease and allergic reactions in people.

As more information becomes available, it will be posted on the Alaska Fisheries Science Center website.

The NOAA Analytical Response Team combines the specialties of a dozen research scientists thoroughly experienced in dealing with unusual events. The team has identified harmful species and toxins at over 200 event responses nationwide. Through detailed analysis, the scientists discovered what was poisoning critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals and endangered short-nose sturgeons in Maine. The team has also analyzed hundreds of California sea lions, Gulf of Mexico dolphins, and pygmy and dwarf sperm whales along the southeastern U.S. Requests from other countries include the case of "algal green goo" which caused desalination plant failures in the Middle East.