Good news for fans of the seaweed that accumulates on beaches in colossal heaps and stings people’s eyes, nostrils and throats with the stench of rotten eggs.(Opens in a new tab): Massive amounts of algae known as sargassum are once again accumulating on Florida shores. And there’s reason to suspect that human-caused environmental devastation might be to blame.
In fact, in the live views of Florida’s 2023 Spring Break festivities, you can watch the Sargassum piling up in real time. Below you can see part of a long sargassum trail flowing down Fort Lauderdale beach. If you tune into this livecam early in the morning, you can watch attendants drive farm equipment over it, apparently to break it up and make it more manageable, because there’s clearly too much to remove.
Yes, these sargassum accumulations are new
It wasn’t happening.
Historically, Sargassum was known to float in giant brown rafts in a section of the North Atlantic called the Sargasso Sea in honor of Sargassum. Sargassum beds are established and diverse ecosystems, and they’re home to (if you’ll excuse my editorial) the ocean’s most underrated predator in terms of sheer badness: Sargassum fish.
But according to a 2015 report(Opens in a new tab) by Jeffrey Schell, Deborah Goodwin and Amy Siuda published in the magazine Oceanography, waters in which sargassum had not previously been dominant suddenly produced masses of the substance. It suddenly accumulated up to one meter deep on sections of coast – including tourist beaches – in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as on the coasts of West Africa and Brazil. .
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“We noticed that the algae looked different from Sargassum fluitans or S. natans that we had known from 20 years of sailing in the Sargasso Sea, the Caribbean and the Strait of Florida,” the report said. In other words, it seemed like an unprecedented accumulation of an unprecedented type of sargassum.
Humanity’s Ecological Havoc Could Play a Role in Sargassum Accumulation
Further study is needed before anyone can say for sure exactly what is causing this seemingly new phenomenon, but scientists are on the case.
Oceanographers now know from studying satellite views that these sargassum originated not from the Sargasso Sea, but from further south: an uneven band the width of an entire section of ocean dubbed the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt. In 2018, oceanographers explained to Atlanticis Ed Yong(Opens in a new tab) that the belt appears to rely on river flows from Brazil and West Africa that dump agricultural fertilizers into the ocean. This in turn may have supercharged algal growth, occasionally turning patchy collections of Sargassum into the huge, self-sustaining algal monster we have today.
Eckerd College oceanographer Amy Siuda told Yong that this state of affairs “is probably the new norm.”
Sargassum is a growing problem
NASA satellite photos show growing blooms, with growing number of record years since 2011(Opens in a new tab). Last June, more than 24 million tons of sargassum(Opens in a new tab) materialized in the Atlantic, which broke the previous record set in 2018. University of South Florida oceanographer Brian Barnes told South Florida affiliate NBC News(Opens in a new tab) that 2023 looks like another monster year. “We’ve seen over the past few months that the bloom is getting bigger. It’s probably as big or if not bigger than the bloom we saw last year,” he said.
Oh, and that rotten egg smell is from hydrogen sulfide, which health officials told local news in Florida(Opens in a new tab), can do more than sting people’s eyes and noses. Too much exposure can cause “headaches, poor memory, fatigue and balance problems”.
And while some sargassum(Opens in a new tab) is known to be eaten by humans, according to the Florida Department of Health(Opens in a new tab) no one has to eat This sargassum, “because it may contain large amounts of heavy metals such as arsenic and cadmium”.