Bad news for beachgoers. Two types of algae - that can be toxic - are threatening beaches in Florida and the Caribbean, including a 5000 mile mat of sargassum and a red tide that's killing off fish and creating respiratory problems in southwest Florida.
A giant, 5000-mile! mat of sargassum is heading westward across the Atlantic towards some of the most popular sun destinations.
Media reports say the floating mat of brown algae stretches from Africa to Florida and the Yucatan Peninsula. It’s already making land - er, beach fall in the Florida Keys, Barbados and Mexico, but scientists say they don’t know yet where the enormous bulk of it will hit.
Sargassum is a naturally-occuring algae, but over the last decade or so, its seasonal growth has ballooned, overwhelming many beach destinations.
When it washes up on beaches, it’s smelly, unsightly, and can even be toxic. As USAToday reports, “some species produce toxins that affect the food chain or deplete the oxygen in the water when they start to decay, causing fish kills and the die-off of other marine species.”
Another naturally-occuring algae is getting out of control this winter, too. The algae bloom known as ‘red tide’ “has overtaken much of Florida’s southwest coast,” media reports say.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has received numerous reports of dead fish washing up on shore across southwest Florida - as well as respiratory problems among residents in nearby communities.
When the algae reaches a certain concentration in the water, and humans breathe in sea spray or are in other contact with the water, it can cause coughing, shortness of breath, eye, skin and throat irritation as well as asthma attacks.
Authorities are monitoring the red tide, but their only course of action is to organize clean ups of dead fish when the problem reaches a certain level.
Red tides have been known to occur in the Gulf of Mexico for hundreds of years - but new research points to nutrient run-off from farms and development to the increasing occurrence of red tides, which usually clear up by spring.
Although naturally-occuring, booming algae blooms in the seas are linked to lawn and farm fertilizers, wastewater and farm nutrient run-off ending up in the sea.
"These nutrients are the common thread that ties all the algal blooms together," said Brian Lapointe, an algae specialist and research professor at Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, including sargassum, red tide, blue green algae, or "brown tide" bloom in Florida said to have wiped out thousands of acres of seagrass, leading to the starving deaths of hundreds of manatees.
Algae blooms are said to be exacerbated by warming waters and shifting ocean currents - and the problem is expected to grow. Scientists predict algae blooms will get bigger, cover larger areas of seas and shores, and threaten more coastlines and aquatic ecosystems in the years to come.