Newsman: A giant globule of seaweed that twice the width of the continental United States is headed for the shores of Florida and other coastlines throughout the Gulf of Mexico. The blob is threatening to dump smelly and possibly harmful piles across beaches and dampening tourism season.
Within the last week, blobs of sargassum have been spotted about 215 miles (346 kilometers) from Guadeloupe, in between the islands of St. Vincent and Bequia, 1,000 yards (914 meters) off Martinique and off the coast of Key Largo, Florida.
Sargassum — the specific variety of seaweed has long formed large blooms in the Atlantic Ocean, and scientists have been tracking massive accumulations since 2011. But this year’s bloom could be the largest ever, collectively spanning more than 5,000 miles (8,047 kilometers) from the shores of Africa to the Gulf of Mexico.
Sargassum can also quickly turn from an asset to a threat to ocean life.
This year’s sargassum bloom began forming early and doubled in size between December and January, said
Dr. Brian Lapointe, A researcher of Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute’s told CNN The mass “was larger in January than it has ever been since this new region of sargassum growth began in 2011.”
Traveling west, the blob will push through the Caribbean and up into the Gulf of Mexico during the summer. The seaweed is expected to show up on beaches in Florida around July, Lapointe said.
“This is an entirely new oceanographic phenomenon that is creating such a problem — really a catastrophic problem — for tourism in the Caribbean region, where it piles up on beaches up to 5 or 6 feet deep,” Lapointe said.
It comes in such “large quantities that it basically sucks the oxygen out of the water and creates what we refer to as dead zones,” Lapointe said. “These are normally nursery habitats for fisheries … and once they’re devoid of oxygen, we have lost that habitat.”
Sargassum can be dangerous to humans, too, Lapointe added. The gas emitted from the rotting algae — hydrogen sulfide — is toxic and can cause respiratory problems. The seaweed also contains arsenic in its flesh, making it dangerous if ingested or used for fertilizer.
“You have to be very careful when you clean the beaches,” Lapointe said.
Because sargassumuse can build up overnight so you might not be able to predict its effects on a trip, Lapointe said.