A seaweed bloom spanning 5,000 miles is being pushed toward the Gulf of Mexico, causing hundreds of tons of seaweed to wash up on beaches across the Caribbean and the Gulf.
The thick blanket of sargassum is about twice the width of the United States, according to SargassumMonitoring.com.
This enormous mat of seaweed is mostly harmless in open water but when pushed toward beaches it can choke corals, wreak havoc on coastal ecosystems and diminish water and air quality as it rots.
Sargassum Monitoring reported that the seaweed blob can be seen from space and is one of the largest on record.
“It’s incredible,” said Brian LaPointe, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. “What we’re seeing in the satellite imagery does not bode well for a clean beach year.”
LaPointe, who has studied seaweed for four decades, said huge piles typically come ashore in South Florida in May, but beaches in Key West are already being inundated with algae.
“Even if it’s just out in coastal waters, it can block intake valves for things like power plants or desalination plants, marinas can get completely inundated and boats can’t navigate through. It can really threaten critical infrastructure,” LaPointe said.
The US Virgin Islands were forced to declare a state of emergency last summer after unusually high quantities of sargassum caused water shortages on St. Croix.
There are also economic concerns when it comes to mass amounts of seaweed. Sargassum can cause issues for the tourism industry and removing hundreds of tons of seaweed from beaches can get costly.
Brian Barnes, an assistant research professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, said “as far back as we have records, sargassum has been a part of the ecosystem, but the scale now is just so much bigger. What we would have thought was a major bloom five years ago is no longer even a blip.”