A giant, stinky algae bloom headed for Florida

Algae cleanup in Mexico

Florida beaches could soon be overrun with huge patches of foul-smelling seaweed.

It is the Atlantic Sargasso Belt, and while not new, it has grown bigger than ever.

This year’s belt is about 18,000 feet (5,500 m) long and weighs 10,000,000,000 kg (10,000,000,000 kg). Travel throughout the year, from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico.

This summer, beaches across the state are expected to reek of sunshine.

Key West, Florida is already seeing the first amounts of seaweed. Beachgoers can expect larger flows of sargassum to come ashore more often, experts say.

“Practically every year we see a bloom unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, because it’s getting bigger and bigger,” Dr. Brian Barnes of the University of South Florida.

Sargasso is a “brown macroalgae that floats on the surface of the ocean,” according to the University of South Florida’s Optical Oceanography Laboratory.

While sargasso is a flower that responds to the same forces, it’s not a “contagious mass,” explains Dr. Barnes.

The smallest amount of a sargasso stain might be the size of a football field, but the largest ones can reach up to one square mile (2.5 sq km).

In the North Atlantic sargasso is an important habitat for marine life, but after 48 hours on land the algae begin to emit toxins such as hydrogen sulfide which, in small quantities, smell like rotten eggs.

Environmentally, sargasso “can smother sea turtle nests on the beach” and release “plumes of dissolved organic matter, which can impact nearshore environments and their inhabitants,” said Dr. Barnes.

Worse than the smell, however, hydrogen sulfide can cause headaches, eye irritation and stomach pain depending on the amount, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

The exact reason for the growth of sargasso is still being studied.

Dr. Chuanmin Hu, a professor at the University of South Florida, said algae need “enough sunlight, warm water and sufficient nutrients from a variety of sources” to grow rapidly. He went on to say that “the elongated belt is formed by ocean currents and surface winds.”

A contributing factor, said Dr. Barnes, may have come from the Amazonian watershed, which has seen an increase in nitrogen which then fertilizes sargasso.

Many Caribbean islands and the Yucatan Peninsula are also affected.

Last month, Cancun saw “excessive” levels of seaweed, and the Mexican Navy had previously joined the fight against the seaweed, sending boats to fish it out of the waters before it could reach the beaches.

The US Virgin Islands even had to declare a state of emergency last year due to threatening seaweed.

Guadeloupe and Martinique have seen thousands of cases of “acute” exposure to hydrogen sulfide, according to a study published in 2018.

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