A giant blob of seaweed twice the width of the continental United States is heading for the coasts of Florida and other coasts along the Gulf of Mexico, threatening to dump smelly and possibly harmful piles on beaches and hurting the tourist season.
Sargassum – the specific variety of seaweed – has long formed large blooms in the Atlantic Ocean, and scientists have been tracking massive accumulations since 2011.
But this year’s formation could be the biggest ever, collectively spanning more than 5,000 miles (8,047 kilometers) from the coast of Africa to the Gulf of Mexico.
This year’s algal bloom started to form earlier and doubled in size between December and January, said Dr. Brian Lapointe, a researcher at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University.
The mass “was bigger in January than ever since this new sargasso growth region started in 2011,” he told the CNN .
Traveling west, the bubble will pass through the Caribbean and rise to the Gulf of Mexico during the summer. The seaweed should appear on Florida beaches around July, Lapointe said.
“This is an entirely new oceanographic phenomenon that is creating a problem – really a catastrophic problem – for tourism in the Caribbean region, where it accumulates on beaches as deep as 5 or 6 feet,” said Lapointe.
Here’s what you should know about why these masses happen and how they affect humans and ocean life.
What is sargassum?
Sargassum is a generic term that can be used to refer to over 300 species of brown algae, although sargassum natans It is Sargassum Flutans are the two species most commonly found in the Atlantic
Adrift at sea, algae could have advantages for ocean life.
“This floating habitat provides food and protection for fish, mammals, seabirds, crabs and more,” according to the Sargassum Information Hub, a joint project between several research institutions.
“It serves as a critical habitat for endangered sea turtles and as a nursery area for a variety of commercially important fish such as mahi mahi, jacks and amberjacks.”
Is sargassum safe?
Problems with sargassum arise when it washes up on beaches, piling up in mounds that can be difficult to navigate and giving off a gas that can smell like rotten eggs.
Sargassum can also quickly go from being an asset to a threat to ocean life.
It comes in “such large amounts that it basically sucks the oxygen out of the water and creates what we call dead zones,” Lapointe said. “These are normally nursery habitats for fishing … and since they are devoid of oxygen, we lose that habitat.”
Sargassum can also be dangerous to humans, Lapointe added. The gas emitted by decomposing algae – hydrogen sulfide – is toxic and can cause respiratory problems.
Kelp also contains arsenic in its flesh, making it dangerous if eaten or used as a fertilizer.
“You have to be very careful when cleaning the beaches,” Lapointe said.
Why is there a sargassum problem?
Like plants and soil crops, seaweed blooms can change from year to year depending on ecological factors, affected by changes in nutrients, rainfall and winds, said Dr. Gustavo Jorge Goni, oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory.
Ocean currents also influence sargassum growth and how much it accumulates, Goni added. Phosphorus and nitrogen in the sea can serve as food for algae.
These elements can be dumped into the ocean by rivers, which obtain concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen from human activities such as agriculture and fossil fuel production, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
For now, researchers are looking at ways to stop seaweed from impacting beaches, possibly sinking it to the ocean floor or harvesting it for use in commercial products like soap, Goni said.
Goni cautioned that research into these sargasso accumulations is new and scientists’ understanding of how algae grow is likely to change over time.
“Whatever we believe we know today,” he said, “may change tomorrow.”
How does accumulation affect trips?
Before traveling to coastal areas this spring or summer, research whether sargassum is at your destination or could appear there, Lapointe said. Plan ahead so your vacation doesn’t disappoint.
There are sargassum groups on Facebook, with members posting about what they’ve recently seen on the beaches, Lapointe said.
“It has already affected the travel industry,” he said.
Unfortunately, sargassum can build up overnight, so you might not be able to predict its effects on a trip, Lapointe said.
“That’s why we’re trying to work on these early warning systems – high resolution in coastal areas, which use high resolution satellite imagery to do a better job of showing what’s actually coming to a beach in the next 24 or 48 hours,” added.
Satellite images from last week show that the sargassum is not an amorphous mass moving through the ocean, but rather teardrop-shaped blobs dragged along long, thin strands of seaweed.
In the last week, bubbles have been spotted about 346 kilometers off Guadeloupe, between the islands of St. Vincent and Bequia, 914 meters from Martinique and the coast of Key Largo, Florida.
How is it clean?
Piles of seaweed build up on beaches cost millions of dollars to clean up, and removal efforts can also harm marine life, according to the Sargassum Information Hub.
In Barbados, locals were using “1,600 dump trucks a day to clean the beaches of these algae to make them suitable for tourists and beach recreation,” Lapointe said.
In shallow water, sargassum can be removed using fishing nets towed by light boats or by hand, according to the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance.
In the United States, cleanup is often done with beach rakes pulled by a tractor, Lapointe said. But when there’s more than a foot of buildup, the rakes don’t work as well, she added.
This is when front end dump trucks can be useful but can be detrimental to the health of the beach.
“A lot of times you have sea turtle nests on beaches that are being run over by tires of this heavy equipment crushing the eggs,” Lapointe said.
What happens if it is not removed from the beaches?
If sargassum is not washed up on beaches or used as fertilizer, the arsenic in its flesh can leach into groundwater, which could be a danger to human health, Lapointe said.
An excessive amount of rotten algae can also encourage the growth of fecal bacteria.
And in 2018, a huge bloom that ended up on South Florida beaches coincided with the biggest red tide ever seen on that coast, Lapointe said.
Red tides occur when toxin-producing algae grow so out of control that they discolor coastal waters.
Red tide organisms can live in and be transported by sargassum.
Toxins from red tides can harm marine life, and algae buildup on beaches can prevent sea turtle hatchlings and adults from reaching the sea, Lapointe said.
Will this happen every year?
Experts don’t know whether a sargassum bloom of this size will happen every year, Lapointe said.
“It’s hard to design because we don’t know everything we need to know about the drivers (behind it),” he said.
“We know that it varies from year to year and that the trajectory is generally upward. So based on what we’ve seen in the past, we think we may continue to see this get worse for years to come. What will it be like in 10 years? Will it be twice the size it is now?”
More funding to do research that could answer these questions is needed, he added.
Source: CNN Brasil
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