Native Floridians have struggled adapting to life as the timeless quality and charm of old Florida are being lost as a result of overdevelopment. That same overdevelopment contributes to the factors that support red tide’s continual growth. Many of us suffer from climate change grief — in particular, the loss of something in nature in the places we have lived so long.
Red tide was once only a rare and brief inconvenience in Florida. While red tide is natural, Boomers remember when natural red tide blooms were barely a blip in the overall Florida experience, compared to what seems to be an ever-present nuisance these days. It is a much more frequent encounter caused phosphate mining runoff, inflows of nitrogen, and man-made fertilizer feeding the blooms. These problems have arrived concurrent with ocean acidification and all kinds of toxic runoff (from overdevelopment) into the beautiful Gulf of Mexico, including the effects of last year’s major hurricane.
The Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt
Now, along with other crises, Floridians are watching the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt, with its 5,000-miles reach, as it engulfs the waters around Miami and Key West, the most quintessential of old Florida, and extends into the Gulf of Mexico.
NPR reports that the algae known as sargassum “is leaving stinky brown carpets over what was once prime tourist sand.” And it is the largest amount that sargassum researchers have tracked this early in the year. The tangled web is woven throughout the ocean from Africa to Miami, but its thickening webs have gotten much more dense as the oceans have warmed — though, seemingly not because of the oceans warming. There are connections, however.
Last summer, the The Smithsonian Institution’s Danielle Hall questioned, “Why the sudden increase of sargassum?” They reported: “Scientists suspect it is a combination of changing ocean currents due to climate change and an increase in nutrient input from Amazon deforestation that is causing the perplexing explosion of growth.”
The algae does benefit birds, some ecosystems, and marine life in the open ocean. Sargassum provides habitat for turtles, crabs, fish, and birds, and by producing oxygen via photosynthesis. However, when it reaches shores, its tangled dark webs have a negative effect on crucial ecosystems such as those of bays, gulfs, and shores.
Hall continues: “Normally, sargassum is a considered a nursery habitat for juvenile sea turtles and fishery species like gray triggerfish, amberjack, and Mahi when it is in the open waters.” Once simply an oasis for ocean life, though, “now it is a nuisance.”
“Too Much of a Good Thing—the Atlantic Sargassum Belt” depicts the Amazon River’s severe flooding in 2009 as one cause, as it deposited the most nutrients into the ocean in 30 years. (And flooding is a cause that keeps on coming.)
Smithsonian’s Hall continues: “Is this the new norm? According to scientists, due to changes happening to the climate the Sargassum blooms are likely to stay. The Amazon River is a powerful force that effects the ocean and it is changing due to human activity. At the turn of the century extreme flooding of the Amazon River occurred every 20 years—now it happens on average every four. From 2009 to 2015 severe flooding happened every single year. Additionally, deforestation is adding to excess nutrients flowing into the ocean. When forests are chopped down and burned the nutrients and the soil are flushed into the ocean. The farms that take the place of the forests add nutrients as fertilizer runoff. ”
Sargassum Patch This Year
Earlier in March, PBS NewsHour quoted Chuanmin Hu, a professor of oceanography at the University of South Florida: “Some sargassum has already reached beaches in Key West, Hu said, But most of it will arrive in the summer. ‘What is unusual this year compared to previous years is it started early,’ Hu said. The algae generally blooms in the spring and summer, but ‘this year, in the winter, we already have a lot.'”
Scientists are working hard to uncover the downsides and possible upsides of the changing patch. Researchers are pushing themselves and must be innovative, and that requires getting inventive with masses (tons) of densely braided, rootless algal blooms. For the moment, ideas are in the early phases, and April’s record could double by July 2023.
A bulletin from the University of South Florida Optical Oceanography Lab shares the outlook for the summer and that the overall belt is growing toward an estimated 13 million tons.
Scientists aboard a NOAA research vessel have collected samples from the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt during this unprecedented bloom. The organization writes: “This opportunistic sampling is taking place on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ship, Ronald H. Brown, which set sail from Port Suape, Brazil on March 6 as part of the Global Ocean Ship-based Hydrographic Investigations Program (GO-SHIP), funded by both NOAA and the National Science Foundation. The international program brings together scientists to develop a globally coordinated network as part of the global ocean/climate observing system. The Sargassum sampling illustrates how scientists aboard research vessels can quickly respond to oceanographic phenomena of wide-spread societal importance in real time. “This has been a great way to leverage the measurements we were already making in the region” said Ellen Park, a graduate student who authored a blog on the team’s efforts.
“Dennis McGillicuddy from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), along with collaborators Chuanmin Hu and Brian Barnes from the University of South Florida, and Brian LaPointe from Florida Atlantic University, are tracking the Sargassum belt from satellite observations and analyzing these opportunistic samples, with the goal of studying the distribution of different species of Sargassum and measuring their elemental composition to better understand their origin. The nutrient supply feeding these blooms remains enigmatic, and hypothesized sources include upwelling/mixing, atmospheric deposition, and river runoff. These samples can help answer some of these critical questions.”
Removing, Disposing, Sinking — All Costly & Complex Ventures
Even though it has been used as fertilizer, removing and disposing of it is a perpetually evolving work. “Processing or decomposing the seaweed may become costlier as the field of sargassum study grows,” according to NPR.
Researcher Brian Lapointe told NPR last month that new research suggests decomposing sargassum may leach heavy metals into its surrounding environment. “One study that examined sargassum along beaches in Mexico found that 86% of samples had arsenic levels that were higher than the U.N.’s limit for livestock feed — one repurposing idea that was explored earlier on.”
Sargassum sinking is another endeavor. It is a fascinating notion that would also prevent it from releasing carbon and perhaps support other initiatives aimed at reducing climate change.
The UK startup Seaweed Generation’s CEO, Paddy Estridge, told NPR that it is building an autonomous robot to catch and drag the toxic algae blanket out to the open ocean, and then forcing it to sink to a depth of 1,000 meters. “It’s a bit like a seaweed Roomba,” Paddy Estridge said. “It goes through the water very very slowly and, a bit like Pac-Man, scoops up the seaweed.” NPR explains the rest: “Then it dives down and offloads the biomass around 200 meters deep, where the air pods that keep the sargassum afloat pop, sending the mass to a watery grave.”
The only thing that is novel about the current sargassum patch is the exponential expansion, which is stunning and akin to the problem of increasing weather disasters. 2018 saw a NASA report on the importance of this. “Earth’s ocean biogeochemistry is changing in response to natural and human forcings. The Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt suggests that we may be witnessing ecosystem shifts in our ocean that could have important implications for marine organisms and ecosystem services, which humans depend on,” said Dr. Paula Bontempi, who manages NASA’s Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry Program and serves as acting deputy director of NASA’s Earth Science Division at NASA Headquarters.
“This is all ultimately related to climate change, as climate affects precipitation and ocean circulation and even human activities [that can lead to Sargassum blooms], but what we’ve shown is that these blooms do not occur because of increased water temperature,” Hu said. “They are probably here to stay.”
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