A disturbing menace is invading southwest Florida – and it’s killing kills sea turtles, sharks and fish while threatening the region’s economy. The “red tide” is caused by a bloom of toxic algae called Karenia brevis. It’s present nearly every year off the coast of Florida, but large blooms can be devastating to fishermen and tourism. Right now the algae is collecting in an area 60 miles wide by 100 miles long that stretches from St. Petersburg to Florida’s Big Bend, where the peninsula ends and the Panhandle begins.

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Red tide kills fish, manatees and other marine life by releasing a toxin that paralyzes their central nervous system. The algae also fouls beaches and can be harmful to people who inhale the toxins when winds blow onshore, or by crashing waves, particularly those with asthma and other respiratory ailments. In 2005, a strong red tide killed reefs, made beaches stinky and caused millions in economic damage in Florida. A weaker red tide in 2013 killed 276 manatees, state records show, after infecting the grasses eaten by the endangered creatures. “This red tide … will likely cause considerable damage to our local fisheries and our tourist economy over the next few months,” says Heyward Mathews, an emeritus professor of oceanography at St. Petersburg College.

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Red tides can’t be stopped, but predicting them would help fishermen and beach businesses to prepare. Of course, trying to predict when a red tide will be especially terrible has proved a difficult task. Much of the information comes from satellite images, which are often obscured by clouds. Given the difficulty in getting good images, there is a concerted effort to use other prediction models based on ocean currents data, rather than satellite images, to make predictions more accurate. One prediction model tracks the currents that provide natural nutrients that the algae needs to gain a foothold, such as phytoplankton. University of South Florida ocean scientist Robert Weisberg was able to forecast this particular red tide using this method in March, which allowed officials to issue a warning on July 25, 2014.

Via Huffington Post

Lead image by Wonk on the Wildlife;others by Emőke Dénes (Isle of Wight, England) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commonsand by Marufish (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons