Smelly seaweed spanning 5,000 miles poses menace to Florida beaches

Visible from space, the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt can 'choke corals, wreak havoc on coastal ecosystems, and diminish water and air quality as it rots'.
Sejal Sharma
Atlantic side caribbean beach with Sargassum grass.
Atlantic side caribbean beach with Sargassum grass.

Derek Galon 

Stretching from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico is a massive brown pile of seaweed - estimated to be weighing approximately 20 million tons - and is the largest seaweed bloom in the world. It is also visible from space.

Called the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt, this giant carpet of seaweed is primarily harmless - it is known to provide a habitat for fish and absorb carbon dioxide from the ocean. And while this massive bloom of algae makes an annual appearance in the Caribbean sea, this year, however, alarm bells are going off as it threatens the tourism and infrastructure industry as the ocean tides push it closer and closer to the land.

It’s not a new phenomenon

Sargassum has been making an appearance every summer since 2011. The seaweed originated from the tropical Atlantic and is believed to result from climate variability and other natural and unnatural processes. 

University of South Florida’s Optical Oceanography Laboratory (OOL) monthly tracks Sargassum via satellites and makes those observations available on the last day of each month. They have been doing it since 2018.

The team at OOL says that the Sargassum abundance in the Central Atlantic decreased overall from January to February this year, but substantial quantities continued accumulating in the Caribbean Sea. In March 2023, it is expected that Sargassum will increase in abundance in both the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

Smelly seaweed spanning 5,000 miles poses menace to Florida beaches
Sargassum seaweed in Mexico

Millions of dollars of trouble for the tourism industry

The tourism industry spends millions of dollars to clean the algae washing up on beaches, which is an eyesore for tourists. These resort-packed beaches - Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum - all in Mexico are part of the country’s $100 billion tourism industry. For tourists, the amount and stench of the substance have deterred them from returning to Mexico in recent years.

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Brian LaPointe, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, told NBC News that huge piles of seaweed usually appear in South Florida in May. Still, beaches in Key West are already being inundated with algae. Parts of Mexico are preparing for up to 3 feet of sargassum buildup in the coming days.

As the Sargassum belt edges closer to land, it can choke corals, wreak havoc on coastal ecosystems and diminish water and air quality as it rots, as reported by Sky News.

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