In August 2011 residents of a small rural village in Alaska were shocked by a strange surprise that washed up on its shores. Authorities had confirmed a weird orange goo substance appeared in the village of Kivalina and arrived through the town's harbor.
Mysterious Appearance of Orange Goo
At the time, the Associated Press reported a local man had noticed the oddity. His wife told the news service she got on the marine radio to alert others in the village about the strange orange goo floating in the harbor. One local resident took pictures, according to New Haven Registrar, and said that the substance did not contain any sort of odor. 1
The following day, rains fell and even more orange goo was found floating in rain buckets. Some of the substance was even found on the roof of one home. This led to the theory the orange goo was not just traveling through water, but possibly airborne too, further adding to the mystery. There were even speculations it was an extra-terrestrial substance.
Experts were confident at this point, whatever it was, the substance was not man-made or a petroleum product and ruled those possibilities out. One local official suggested it was likely some sort of algae.
By the third day, the grounds had dried and the orange goo left behind a "powdery substance."
Orange Goo (Chrysomyxa ledicola) found floating in the water in Kivalina, Alaska during August 2011
Strange Gooey Substance Sent Off for Analysis
The orange goo was tested in a lab in Anchorage to be analyzed. In the meantime, Kivalina, with a population of 374, continued to wonder where the mysterious goop came from.
At the time, the U.S. Coast Guard said they also tested and ruled the goo out as being man-made or a petroleum product. CNN had reported Alaska's Environmental Health Laboratory sent samples to various other labs for testing, including a lab utilized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
"There doesn't appear to be any evidence of a release of oil or hazardous substances at this time, but we're continuing to investigate and try to get lab determinations on what exactly the material is," Emanuel Hignutt, EHL's analystical chemistry manager, told CNN in 2011. 3
The Theory of Microscopic Eggs
A week after the mysterious substance first appeared, experts were able to better offer a hypothesis regarding the strange bright and gooey material. But there was still no definitive answer. Scientists next determined the mysterious substance found throughout Kivalina to be millions of microscopic eggs, filled with fatty droplets, however the mystery was far from being solved as detailed continued to unfold.
On Aug. 8, 2011 the Los Angeles Times reported an interview with a lead chemist at NOAA:
"We now think these are some sort of small crustacean egg or embryo, with a lipid oil droplet in the middle causing the orange color," said Jeep Rice. "So this is natural. It is not chemical pollution; it is not a man-made substance." 4
But they were still not sure whether or not the substance was toxic. This caused much concern for the residents of Kivalina.
Kivalina is essentially self-sufficient because of the village's far remote area, about 650 miles northwest of Anchorage. Not knowing whether or not the orange goo has contaminated local water supplies or food sources was a serious concern. Residents worried their region could be afflicted with poisonous microscopic residues.
As you can see in the map, Kivalina is located in a very remote area of Alaska. Being self sufficient, the orange goo that mysteriously appeared was a big concern.
Kivalina, AK, USA
Not Eggs After All
As this mystery continued to unfold throughout August 2011, experts later recanted their earlier theory of the strange substance being eggs and determined and, after further analysis, decided the orange goo was actually some type of fungal spore. 5
At that time, media reports said analysts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) concluded the additional tests showed the goo was consistent with diseased spores from fungi that create a rust-like substance.
Julie Speegle, a spokesman for NOAA's National Fisheries Service in Alaska said the material was likely harmless. BBC News had reported Speegle said:
"Rust is a disease that only affects plants, so there's no cause for alarm," Speegle had said.
She added that the details about its origins, however, continued to remain a mystery.
Mystery Finally Gets Solved?
Many months after the goo first appeared, experts said they were finally able to solve the mystery. In February 2012, Live Science reported NOAA researchers reported the goop was aligned with the rust theory and definitely not any alien eggs. After extensive examination, the "orange goo" was identified as being tundra rust spores. The USDA Forest Service and Canadian Forest Service identified it as the rust fungus as the parasitic Spruce-Labrador Tea Needle Rust, otherwise known as Chrysomyxa ledicola. 6
Residents in the tiny remote village were finally able to rest with relief in the knowledge their community was not in danger from the mysterious orange goo that had appeared the year before, although not everyone was convinced with this explanation.
Is this actually mystery solved? Well, it seems to depend who you ask. A news piece published by the Alaska News Dispatch the week the mystery was reported as solved said were still some residents skeptical being that type of tree associated with the orange substance is not native to the region.
"Someone please show me where all the spruce trees are," joked Colleen Swan, a city councilwoman in the Inupiat village, reported the Alaska News Dispatch in March 2012. "Gosh, I would like to climb a spruce tree. Or even know what one looks like."
Others living in the area who work with the land agreed that if these trees were present, they'd know about it. Some questioned even if it did drift to shore, how did it end up in water buckets? Did the "goo" drift from afar? Or was there some other factor?
Perhaps this is one mystery we’ll never know the full answer to. While the case appears to now be closed when I looked for more recent reports, it is one curious event.
In late 2014 and early 2015 the small village was front center in the news again, being cited as being in the "front lines" of the climate change debate as the island loses several feet of land each year. 10 This is a big concern due to the high levels of erosion occurring in recent decades.