A raft of brown-colored seaweed in the Atlantic Ocean is so vast it can be seen from space.
Spanning roughly 5,000 miles — about twice the width of the United States — the thick blanket of sargassum floats between the Gulf of Mexico and the shores of West Africa. These giant algae mats are almost innocuous and have many benefits. They can be used as habitats for fish and crustaceans, and absorb carbon dioxide. Ocean currents have pushed sargassum west and hundreds of tons of seaweed are washing up on beaches in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. It can choke corals, cause havoc in coastal ecosystems, and reduce water quality and air quality while it rots.
Scientists say this bloom is one of the largest on record, stoking fears that seaweed invasions of beaches in the coming weeks and months could be particularly severe.
” “It’s amazing,” Brian LaPointe of Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute said. “What we’re seeing in the satellite imagery does not bode well for a clean beach year.”
Sargassum’s growth varies from season to season. LaPointe who studied the subject for over 40 years, stated that large piles of sargassum typically arrive in South Florida around May. However, beaches in Key West have already been inundated by algae. Parts of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, including Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum, are preparing for up to 3 feet of sargassum buildup in the coming days.
Giant mounds of seaweed are not only annoying but also an eye-sore. Brian Barnes is an assistant professor in the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida.
“Even if it’s just out in coastal waters, it can block intake valves for things like power plants or desalination plants, marinas can get completely inundated and boats can’t navigate through,” he said. “It can really threaten critical infrastructure.”
Last summer, the U.S. Virgin Islands declared a state of emergency after unusually high quantities of sargassum caused water shortages on St. Croix.
Other impacts to human health are coming into focus. As the seaweed rots, it releases hydrogen sulfide, which can cause respiratory problems for tourists and residents in the vicinity, LaPointe said.
“Following the big 2018 blooms, doctors in Martinique and Guadeloupe reported thousands of people going to clinics with breathing complications from the air that was coming off these rotting piles of sargassum,” he said.
Then, there are economic worries. Sargassum infestations can be a problem for tourism and it is expensive to remove hundreds of tonnes of algae from the beaches.
The post Huge Atlantic Seaweed Bloom Threatens Beaches in Florida, Mexico was first published on NBC News .