Huge masses of foul-smelling seaweed in the Caribbean could cause headaches for sun-seekers

Huge masses of foul-smelling seaweed in the Caribbean could cause headaches for sun-seekers

Each winter, thousands and thousands of Canadians head all the way down to the Caribbean in search of sunshine, pristine seashores and crystal-clear waters. 

This yr, nevertheless, vacationers might have seen one thing not-so-pleasant awaiting them on the seaside: pungent, brown sargassum.

Over the previous decade, the foul-smelling seaweed has turn out to be extra widespread on seashores round the Caribbean and the south Atlantic Ocean. So what is going on on? To grasp, first you’ll want to perceive sargassum.

What’s sargassum?

Sargassum is a sort of brown seaweed (and a type of algae) discovered in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s made up of leafy items, in addition to oxygen-filled, spherical berry-like bits that assist it float on the floor. It does not have any roots or seeds.

In contrast to another varieties of seaweed, it lives its total life on the floor of the ocean in small patches. Sargassum is often discovered in a area known as the Sargasso Sea, the place it tends to flow into in a vortex known as a gyre, by way of a five-million sq. kilometre belt that runs from Chesapeake Bay in the mid-Atlantic, all the strategy to the Caribbean.

Nonetheless, sargassum can clump collectively, creating rafts or or patches. It has a seasonal cycle, starting in the spring, reaching its peak in the summer time, and at last dying off in the fall.

Sargassum is a leafy brown kind of algae that lives and breeds on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

Typically massive collections can wash up on seashores, which will be an annoyance to beach-goers. However they’re important to some marine life, offering meals and breeding grounds for animals similar to fish, sea turtles and extra.

“[Sargassum] has fashioned these monumental floating masses in the open sea, that are great, really … as a result of they take in carbon, they suck up vitamins, they maintain rather a lot of life, and rather a lot of animals rely upon them,” mentioned Brigitta Ine van Tussenbroek, a scientist at the Nationwide Autonomous College of Mexico’s Institute of Marine Sciences and Limnology.

“Even the American eel, the Northern European eel, they would not exist with out the Sargasso Sea, for instance. So it is a great system.”

Is it rising?

Whereas most sargassum often stays in this gyre, it could journey alongside a form of conveyor belt in the Atlantic and Caribbean. Scientists have seen a noticeable increase in sargassum washing up on beaches in the Caribbean since 2011

“Typically, some of these gyres … slackened, and a few of the sargassum escaped after which went to Cuba, to Hispaniola, and a few ended up in Mexico go to the Gulf of Mexico. After which it went again to the Sargasso Sea,” van Tussenbroek mentioned.

“Since 2010–11, immediately, some sargassum began to build up in a brand new space, which is simply north of the equator in the tropical Atlantic.”

A man stands on brown mounds of sargassum on a beach.Park guard Roberto Varela walks over sargassum seaweed piled up on the seashore in Guanahacabibes Peninsula, Cuba, June 27, 2022. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

Why is that this taking place? Scientists aren’t positive.

A quantity of elements could be at play, together with local weather change and human exercise,  mentioned van Tussenbroek.  

Chuanmin Hu, a professor at College of South Florida who research these blooms with their Sargassum Watch System (SaWS), mentioned that rather a lot of vitamins come from the Saharan Desert mud that blows throughout the Atlantic Ocean.

However there’s additionally ocean upwelling, he mentioned, the place water from deep beneath the ocean is delivered to the floor, and together with it, extra vitamins, which additional helps these blooms. And, scientists consider that with a changing climate, there could be more ocean upwelling. As effectively, vitamins movement into the Atlantic from the Congo River in Africa and the Amazon River in South America.

“Now the query is, which is dominant?” Hu mentioned. “We simply do not know. It is tough to quantify their contributions.”

What’s the scenario this yr?

Based on SaWS, January was the second month in a row the place sargassum doubled, which final occurred in 2018. Although it dropped in February, the perception is that it’ll proceed to develop and make its approach alongside the shores of Caribbean nations. Final yr noticed the most sargassum ever recorded.

However up to now, this yr is spectacular, Hu mentioned, including that that in December SaWS predicted that 2023 could be yet one more report yr, although there is not any assure.

“All we will say is this might be one other main yr.”

Simply how a lot is there?

In January, there have been greater than eight million metric tons of sargassum in the Atlantic Ocean, Hu mentioned. In February, that dropped to between six-to-seven million metric tons. However Hu mentioned there could be much more in March. 

“Proper now they’re scattered right here and right here with a low density. Even inside the belt, the density is of lower than 0.1 per cent,” Hu mentioned. “But when anyone could put all the sargassum in one place, what’s the measurement of this? It is about, I feel, 3,000 sq. kilometres, with no hole.”

Brownish-green sargassum is seen floating in the blue ocean.An aerial view of Sargassum algae in Cancun, Aug. 13, 2015. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

What are some results of massive blooms?

These massive blooms that scientists have seen develop since 2011 are problematic. First, inns and cities must swallow the value of eradicating these masses, in order to guard a profitable tourism trade. 

Then, there’s the concern over ecosystems.

A worker in a white shirt and black pants shovels brown sargassum into a wheelbarrow. The shore is covered in it.Employees clear Sargassum algae alongside Punta Piedra seaside in Tulum in Mexico’s state of Quintana Roo on Aug. 11, 2018. (Israel Leal/Reuters)

An abundance of sargassum can threaten delicate shoreline ecosystems, in addition to smother coral reefs, lowering their cowl and roughness, which makes them extra prone to waves and have much less safety from hurricanes. It may possibly additionally forestall hatchling sea turtles from reaching the ocean. 

The excellent news is that there could be some makes use of for the masses of sargassum, together with using it as biofuel or even as building materials.

Ought to I be involved?

If you happen to’re heading to the seaside and encounter these masses, there is no such thing as a rapid concern, although the odor because it breaks down will be disagreeable. And it could destroy that off-shore snorkelling or swimming you would possibly wish to get pleasure from.

“What I wish to say now, to vacationers is do not panic,” Hu mentioned. “This can be a pure plant; it is not poisonous. If you’ve an excessive amount of, if [it decomposes], it might be dangerous, but it surely’s not poisonous most of the time,” Hu mentioned. “

“And in addition most time, even when they accumulate on seashores, the native individuals usually take away them. So, when you’ve got journey plans, come to Florida, come to the Caribbean. I would not fear about issues.”

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