Massive algae blooms are encroaching on the coast of South Florida
A giant blob of seaweed is floating off Florida’s west coast in the Gulf of Mexico. The mass is known as Sargassum – what is it and what happens when it reaches the coast?
What is Sargassum?
According to NOAA, sargassum is a brown seaweed that floats on a large scale. Seaweed, which is a type of algae, never reaches the bottom of the ocean because it contains berry-like bubbles known as pneumatocysts, which are filled with oxygen and buoy the mass.
When the blob of seaweed reaches the shore, another gas is at work — hydrogen sulfide, according to Florida Health. It is produced as seaweed rots and smells like rotten eggs.
Inhaling hydrogen sulfide can make breathing difficult, especially if you have breathing problems such as asthma. And although it can irritate your eyes, nose and throat, it’s not expected to cause long-term health effects if you’re exposed to it at the beach, as fresh air can dilute the gas.
What is happening in Florida?
Most years since 2011 have seen large quantities of Sargassum in the Caribbean. The Optical Oceanography Lab at the University of Florida begins monitoring sargassum each year, and they say that this year, substantial amounts of sargassum accumulate in the Caribbean Sea between January and. Although the Atlantic decreases, February.
Although the 2023 sargassum bloom is not as large as initially expected, it will still be a prime year for the algae, and the lab expected it to continue growing in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico in March.
It is expected to travel west from the Caribbean Sea and become a hazard to some beaches in Florida.
NOAA’s latest report on sargassum shows that it is already abundant off the coast of South Florida and a moderate amount off the East Coast between February 14 and 20.
Universal Image Group via Jeffrey Greenberg/Getty Images
Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico had high to moderate amounts around their coasts, while the coasts of Anguilla and Barbados appeared to be covered in large amounts of seaweed. Parts of South America and Mexico are also affected.
Last year, large amounts of sargassum washed ashore on Florida beaches, such as in Miami, in July.
This year, images from Miami Beach show that brown seaweed has already formed a barrier between the sandy beach and the shoreline.
While it may smell bad, it actually helps many migratory marine animals, such as turtles, crabs and fish, by providing a habitat, Florida Health says.
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How to protect against sargassum
Although the seaweed is rumored to cause cancer in humans, it does not, says Florida Health. However, the department warns against consuming it, as it may contain arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals.
The department said children should always be supervised at the beach and beachgoers should avoid swimming near seaweed. Although seaweed is harmless to touch, creatures such as stinging jellyfish can live in it and harm swimmers.
The department said those who handle seaweed should still wear gloves. And those who experience shortness of breath should avoid the beach or limit their time there until symptoms stop. Closing the doors and windows of houses near the beach is also helpful.