With the compounding effects of climate change and harmful human activities, it’s a problem that’s been worsening by the year—the colossal algae blooms growing over the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, which annually affects tourism on North and Central American coasts.
After growing into gargantuan floating globs, a seaweed variety known as sargassum (a catch-all term that actually refers to many species of brown algae), eventually washes up on beaches in popular travel destinations, from Florida beaches to Caribbean coastlines and all through the Gulf of Mexico.
And, this season’s enormous algae mass that’s formed in Atlantic waters over the past few months could be the largest one ever, Dr. Brian Lapointe, a researcher at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, told CNN. That’s right, 2023’s gargantuan seaweed glob stretches across 5,000 miles, and could collectively cover the entire United States twice over.
Lapointe explained that this year’s sargassum bloom began forming early, and then doubled in size between December and January. The floating expanse, “was larger in January than it has ever been since this new region of sargassum growth began in 2011,” Lapointe told the outlet. “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,” he said.
Besides being an incredible eyesore, the Brobdingnagian blobs that overrun these beaches have plenty of other negative impacts on popular coastal tourist areas. Not to mention the detriments imposed on marine life after they make landfall, disrupting delicate ecosystems, and choking natural habitats and breeding grounds.
Not only do the fast-accumulating mounds of slippery algae make navigating beaches difficult, they also produce a pretty revolting smell akin to rotting eggs as they decompose. The sargassum emits malodorous and toxic hydrogen sulfide gas as it putrefies, which can cause respiratory problems.
The seaweed’s flesh also contains arsenic, making it hazardous to humans if it gets ingested or is repurposed as fertilizer. “If you are somewhere where you are harvesting this to use as fertilizer…you have to be very concerned, particularly if you are using it for a food and fiber crop for human consumption,” Lapointe explained.
Getting rid of the stuff is also no small feat. Cleaning up the massive algae mounds along beaches costs millions of dollars, according to the Sargassum Information Hub, a joint project of various research institutions that monitors and forecasts such sargassum proliferations.
The ominous ocean-bound mass is currently floating westward towards Florida, and will push through the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico during the spring and summer months. It’s expected to arrive on beaches in the Sunshine State around July, according to Lapointe.
The research scientist said, “It’s already affected the travel industry.” To avoid undue disappointment, Lapointe suggests that travelers planning on coastal vacations this spring and summer research whether sargassum is forecast to be present in their destination. He said there are Facebook groups dedicated to the issue where users post about what they’ve recently observed on beaches.
Research into the increase in sargassum’s uncontrolled proliferation in the Atlantic annually is fairly new, so scientists don’t yet have much insight into its cause or how it will evolve from year to year.
“It’s hard to project because we don’t know everything we need to know about the drivers (behind this),” Lapointe said. “We know it’s variable from year to year and that the trajectory is generally going upwards. So based on what we’ve seen in the past, we’re thinking we could continue to see this worsen for years to come. What will it be like in 10 years? Will it be double the size it is now?”
For now, researchers are trying to devise ways to interrupt the algae’s effects on beaches and coastal tourism, perhaps by sinking the swaths to the bottom of the ocean or harvesting it for some future commercial use, such as soap production.