Satellite imagery has unveiled a massive 5,000-mile clump of seaweed floating toward the gulf coast of Florida. Experts believe the growth is being caused by a mineral deposit in the Gulf of Mexico, although the exact origin of the deposit is currently unknown. Fortunately, the type of seaweed amassing is not toxic like the infamous ‘red tide’ algae that have been known to plague Florida’s coasts this time of year. Still, many are predicting that given the wind and current directions, much of the seaweed may wash ashore, covering many of Florida’s beaches with a rotting mess during a time of year when tourism begins to ramp up.
By Scott Heidler; March 16, 2023
COCOA BEACH, Fla. —
It has happened every year for thousands of years – tons of seaweed called sargassum washes ashore on Central Florida beaches.
But this year’s sargassum seaweed bloom is massive, the largest ever seen for this time of year. Using satellite imagery, scientists say it stretches 5,000 miles.
“There’s seaweed that is growing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and then there’s seaweed that comes ashore,” said Dr. Kevin Johnson at Florida Tech’s marine sciences department. “One does not automatically equal the other.”
A significant factor for those on the beaches of Central Florida is the easterly winds. That’s the engine that can bring more sargassum to our shores than ever before.
There was a record set in 2018 and this year could rival that.
Scientists point to more nutrients feeding the growth of the bloom. Those could be coming up from the ocean floor but also from human impact along the Amazon and forest fires in Africa.
“Fortunately, sargassum is not like some of our red tides that produce an aerosolized organic toxin. But as it rots, it does smell,” Johnson said.
When the sargassum decomposes, it smells like rotten eggs. While it can be unpleasant, it’s not harmful in the open air at the beach. But what it does do, along with the clutter on the sand, makes it a challenge for beachgoers and tourists.
One thing to keep in mind is that there are a lot of small marine animals living in the seaweed that can cause skin irritation and itching. If you see light-colored sargassum, that means it’s fresh and those animals are probably still in there.
“We’re calling it ‘Seaweed-ageddon’ because of the size and scope of this,” said Space Coast Tourism Office executive director Peter Cranis.
While it’s still not guaranteed to invade Central Florida shores, preparations are being discussed.
“We have not seen it hit as badly here as other areas,” Cranis said. “But what other areas have done is literally trucking it off the beach with equipment to put it in dump trucks, taking it off the beach.”
So there’s the “if” it’ll come ashore but also the “when.” Estimates span from a month or two all the way to the summer. So authorities are keeping a close eye on it for now.