Florida’s Red Tide: Possible causes, Who’s to blame?

Author: John R. Mousseau, CFA, Post Date: September 15, 2018

Jim Roemer (A.K.A. Dr. Weather) has been forecasting for the commodity and ski industry for over 30 years . He splits his time between Sarasota, Florida and Vermont, and has a deep passion and concern about the environment and climate. We found his work titled, “Florida’s Red Tide: Possible causes, Who’s to blame? Implications to humans and how it can be resolved,” to be interesting and of interest to our audience. With his permission and our thanks to Jim, we share it with you today. You can find out more about Jim Roemer at his website, https://www.bestweatherinc.com.

John R. Mousseau, CFA
President and CEO
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Florida’s Red Tide: Possible causes, Who’s to blame?

Florida’s Red Tide: Possible causes, Who’s to blame?
Implications to humans and how it can be resolved

As a steward of trying to bring more awareness to people about global warming and protecting our environment, seeing and smelling, the Red Tide Algae in Florida, is particularly bothersome.

THE FIRST THING you notice is the smell. It’s not a scent, exactly, but a tingling in the nose that quickly spreads to the throat and burns the lungs. But then you see the carcasses.

I moved to Florida 10 years ago to enjoy the Florida beaches, but have seen first hand how Red Tide has gotten worse over the years. In the past, hurricanes such as Katrina, Irma, etc. were thought to add to the problem, but actually, we need some sort of tropical weather system to churn up the waters. This would potentially mix up and move toxins, if only temporarily. It’s ironic to think about a hurricane actually benefiting Florida, after the many disasters the Sunshine State has witnessed over the years. However, a weak system could actually be beneficial to Florida.

RED TIDE–“It’s killing sea life, battering our economy and making people sick,” says a recent Florida TV ad. “Red tide continues to devastate our area. And many feel it’s fair to blame Rick Scott.” The blame assertion is lifted from an Orlando Sentinel editorial, which appears on screen.

Please see a most recent TV ad and how once again the Florida legislature is more concerned with money in their pockets and big business, rather than helping the environment.

In a study I did last May, I was one of the first to predict a pretty inactive hurricane season this year, due to a combination of cooler Atlantic ocean temperatures, compared to last year; a possible weak El Nino developing and African dust that could hurt hurricane activity. The oceans are presently warming a bit more than the 1994 analog (below), so the hurricane season will start perking up. Nevertheless, the odds of a major hurricane hitting Florida or the Gulf coast this fall, is greatly reduced, compared to last year’s devastating season. That’s of course a good thing.

(How can African dust can kill the Atlantic hurricane season? See here for a recent article)

Come late fall and winter, however, when we begin to see occasional cool fronts come in from the north, this would more likely “ease” the Red Tide problem. The longer it takes to get a tropical system to hit Florida, or a major cool front to come down from the north, the longer the Red Tide problem could remain along Florida’s west coast costing billions of dollars to the Sunshine State’s tourism.

How Can Red Tide be Mitigated? History
In Florida, Mote Marine scientists have been developing a patented system to mitigate the red tide’s toxic effects. It uses the highly reactive molecule ozone—which is composed of a trio of oxygen atoms—to destroy all organic compounds, including algae and brevetoxins, while oxygenating the water. They’ve successfully tested the system in a 25,000-gallon tank and are now prepping for a pilot project in a local canal, clarifying around 600,000 gallons of water.

For now, however, scientists are continuing to monitor the blooms in Florida, hoping eventually to be able to forecast these events. But the death toll continues to climb. “Wildlife is kind of the proverbial canary in the coal mine,” says CROW’s Barron. “And right now, the canary just died.

RED TIDE and its History
Red tide is a phenomenon caused by algal blooms (Wikipedia definition) during which algae become so numerous that they discolor coastal waters (hence the name “red tide”). The algal bloom may also deplete oxygen in the waters and/or release toxins that may cause illness in humans and other animals.

Spanish explorers documented seeing it back in the 1500s. However, it remained poorly understood until a scientist named Karen Steidinger of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg spent decades putting it under her microscope. In tribute, scientists renamed the species to honor her, changing Gymnodinium breve to Karenia brevis.

Major factors influencing red tide events include warm ocean surface temperatures, low salinity, high nutrient content, calm seas, and rain followed by sunny days during the summer months . In addition, algae related to red tide can spread or be carried long distances by winds, currents, storms, or ships.

Another factor is likely that phosphorous levels in the lake are high. This is due to back-pumping water from sugar cane farms to the south. Then, due to a high amount of debris from Hurricane Irma in all lakes, rivers, and estuaries, oxygen levels in freshwater bodies have dropped. This causes levels of iron to increase in the water running off into the Florida coast. Both nutrients, phosphorous and iron, can cultivate algae like red tide.

Recent decades have brought intense blooms to Florida. A particularly bad bloom came in 1947. The brevetoxins in the air were so thick, the residents of Naples, Florida, thought armed forces had poured nerve gas into the Gulf—an observation that helped scientists discover the algae’s irritating fumes.

Charlotte and Lee counties are experiencing some of the highest concentrations of red tide in recent memory, and it’s creeping north into Sarasota. Facebook videos of dead manatees and sea turtles have gone viral, but dying gamefish like snook and endangered redfish scare Greer most.

Presently, roughly 20 million algal cells color this swath of red that recently lingered off of Florida’s southwest coast. The red tide began in October 2017, and there are no signs that the toxic plume will lift anytime soon. But the problem is not limited to Florida alone, there seems to be a global expansion of these harmful blooms, with China waters seeing a huge increase the last few years.

There is much debate on exactly “what is causing these blooms to expand.” I am a firm believer that climate change is one of the culprits. This is because these toxins thrive in warmer waters. Of course, increasing nutrient runoff is also a major issue due to the sugar industry around Lake Okeechobee and the rapid housing boom along the Florida coast. Decades of nutrient pollution mixed with heavy rainfall and warm temperatures helped create toxic algae in Lake Okeechobee. At one point this year, blue-green algae covered 90 percent of the lake.

In a controversial study in 2008, University of Miami scientists Larry Brand and Angela Compton examined the last 50 years of data on K. brevis blooms, reporting that between 1994 and 2002, the blooms were 13 to 18 times more abundant than those striking from 1954 to 1963.

(For a great source for more information about Red Tide, please visit here:  https://serc.carleton.edu/microbelife/topics/redtide/index.html)

(Information below is from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Mote Marine Laboratory.)

Does Red Tide Effect Humans?
Yes, although not with such finality. The latest state report shows people at beaches from Sarasota to Naples reporting breathing problems as a result of encountering the Red Tide bloom. Usually the toxins cause only mild irritation and coughing, but they can produce serious problems for people with asthma and other respiratory problems. Health officials advise against eating shellfish from Red Tide areas because the toxins can accumulate in their bodies, poisoning humans.
Is it OK to eat seafood right now?
Most seafood restaurants aren’t serving fish and crustaceans that were caught locally, so you’ll be fine. If you want to eat a fish you caught yourself, be careful. Make sure it’s alive when you reel it in. Only eat the muscle tissue of the fish, nothing else.
Can I go swimming in the Red Tide?
If you can get past all the coughing and wheezing and dead fish floating in the water, sure! Most people don’t develop the skin irritation that bothers a few who swim through the algae bloom. However, you should be sure to shower off thoroughly when you’re done.
Can I still take my dog for a walk on the beach?
Yes, but don’t let Fido play with any dead fish or foam on the beach, and give him a thorough rinse with freshwater when he’s done — before he gets in your car, not after.
Should we find a way to destroy all algae in the ocean so we can avoid having this happen again?
No. Most blooms are beneficial because the tiny plants serve as food for animals in the ocean. They are the major source of energy in the ocean food web.

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