An enormous carpet of seaweed stretching 5,000 miles (about 8,047 kilometres), about twice the width of the United States, is set to cause problems along the beaches of Florida and Mexico, as scientists become increasingly concerned about the algae’s effects. According to a report in NBC News, the raft of brown seaweed in the Atlantic Ocean is so vast that it can be seen from space.
The algae bloom known as the “Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt” spans from the coast of West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico. It weighs over 20 million tonnes and is the largest seaweed bloom on Earth.
In open water, these algae are usually safe and even beneficial, acting as a habitat for some fish, and crustaceans and absorbing carbon dioxide, among other things. However, sargassum is being pushed west by ocean currents, and as a result, masses of seaweed are washing up on beaches in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, as per the outlet. Its rotting can suffocate corals, devastate coastal ecosystems and reduce the quality of the water.
Experts have warned that this year’s bloom is particularly alarming as “invasions of beaches in the coming weeks and months could be particularly severe”. Brian LaPointe, a Research Professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, told the outlet, “It’s incredible. What we’re seeing in the satellite imagery does not bode well for a clean beach year.”
Despite the piles typically washing ashore in May, he explained that beaches in Key West are already covered in the algae. Beaches in Mexico, including those in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum, are gearing up for a significant sargassum buildup this week.
According to Brian Barnes, Assistant Research Professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, the amount of seaweed is increasing every year, reaching record-breaking heights in 2018 and 2022. He claimed that this year, however, will break previous records.
As seaweed rots, its impact on human health is also coming into focus. It releases hydrogen sulfide, which can cause respiratory problems for tourists and residents in the vicinity. Furthermore, the removal of hundreds of tonnes of algae from beaches is expensive and the invasions can also harm tourism.
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According to Mr LaPointe, the world’s largest rivers- Congo, Amazon, Orinoco and Mississippi, have all been impacted by deforestation, increased fertiliser use and biomass burning. “All of that is increasing the nitrogen concentrations in these rivers and so we’re now seeing these blooms as kind of a manifestation of the changing nutrient cycles on our planet,” he said. Climate change, he claimed, can worsen many of these problems by increasing flooding and runoff into significant waterways.
Mr Barnes continued, “Historically, as far back as we have records, sargassum has been a part of the ecosystem, but the scale now is just so much bigger. What we would have thought was a major bloom five years ago is no longer even a blip.”
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