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Coming Soon To A Beach Near You – THE BLOB!

The blob is coming. A blob of foul-smelling seaweed as big as the U.S. is heading west through the Atlantic Ocean, projected to reach our shores later this month. It is poised to ruin beach vacations in Florida and throughout the Caribbean, and there is nothing you can do about it.

Not surprisingly with such alarming headlines, Janet and I have noted an increase in inquiries from our clients about how the blob might affect their vacation plans. So…I thought a bit of fact checking would be appropriate.

Yes, the blob is coming. Yes it is big, but not as big as is being reported. And it isn’t a single large mass…it exists as multiple patches that won’t hit all at once, it won’t hit all areas at the same time, and the blob is actually smaller this year than it has been in the past. Oh yes…the blob has come before. It has been around since 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Or more accurately golden brown as it was when he sailed through the blob.

The blob is actually sargassum seaweed and it has existed since before written records. Columbus is credited as the first mariner to document it, but he surely wasn’t the first to encounter it. He wrote about sailing through so much sargassum that he feared it would trap his ship. Columbus, though Italian by birth, received his nautical training in Portugal and referred to the seaweed using a term common amongst Portuguese sailors, sargaço. The name stuck.

Sargassum is actually quite interesting. There is indeed a continent-sized biomass of sargassum, but it isn’t a single blob. It exists in broad patches, mostly confined to the Sargasso Sea (named because of the prevalence of sargassum), but it spreads throughout the Atlantic and into the warm waters of the Caribbean. And it isn’t heading to our shores en masse. Most of the it sits in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean year-round where it has lived probably since shortly after the first critters crawled out of the primordial ooze. Maybe it was the primordial ooze. Patches of sargassum are driven to beaches by ocean currents, storms, the tides, and the prevailing trade winds. Sargassum landings have gotten more frequent and more bothersome in recent years, prompting scientists to follow it more closely, but only since 2011. It is still poorly understood.

As much as sargassum is reviled by beach lovers, it is revered by environmental scientists who describe it the as the lungs of the ocean. Sargassum serves the same function for the environment as do the trees of the rainforests. It absorbs nutrients from the ocean water and uses those nutrients along with massive amounts of carbon dioxide for the photosynthesis that allows it to thrive. The byproduct of course is massive amounts of oxygen released into the air. Sargassum in the ocean is a good thing.

Sargassum on the beach is not a good thing, at least not for beach lovers. After washing ashore sargassum quickly dies off, fouling beaches and releasing noxious ammonia and hydrogen sulfide gasses as it decays. Think rotten egg. Scientists tracking the Atlantic sargassum biomass since 2011 have documented its behavior, watching as the biomass expands and contracts through the seasons without fully understanding what drives the changes in size or the overall growth trend. Some blame excessive fertilizer runoff delivered to the Atlantic by the Amazon, and some blame sandstorms and upwelling currents that trap and drive mineral rich sand blown off the African deserts. Probably it is both and more.

There is a generally defined season to sargassum patches washing ashore in Mexico and the Caribbean that correlates roughly, though not perfectly, with the Atlantic hurricane season. A few online sites dedicated to monitoring and tracking the movement of sargassum have cropped up in recent years, but our understanding of sargassum remains too nascent to support accurate predictions.

Resort areas prone to sargassum go to great lengths to remove the stuff when it washes ashore on their beaches. Some have invested in netting to trap the heaviest patches before they reach the beach, but nets are only partially effective. Sargassum is not tethered to the ocean floor with roots…it floats on the ocean’s surface thanks to a network of buoyant nodules, so it can float over the netting. To deal with patches that make it to shore, resorts use a combination of heavy equipment and old-fashioned manual labor to clear their beaches whenever the blob fouls them. Abatement efforts continue throughout the day as laborers rake and shovel the stuff into wheelbarrows and pick-up trucks, to be carried away and buried so the offensive odor doesn’t bother beachgoers.

In the list of things to be concerned about when it comes to travel, sargassum seaweed should rank pretty low. Not because it isn’t a nuisance when it fouls the beach you happen to be sunning on…it is. But it is a nuisance you can’t do anything about. You can’t predict it, you can’t plan around it, and you can’t escape it. Janet and I have been on the beach one minute with not a bit of sargassum in sight, only to return to the beach after stepping off for lunch to find the sand covered with the stuff. And just as quickly as it arrives, it disappears. You rarely have to deal with it for more than a few hours or days at a time.

The blob is coming, it will get lots of press this summer because the imagery resonates with beach goers, and there’s nothing you can do about it except to live by the mantra of the Caribbean. Don’t worry…be happy. The blob will come, the blob will go. When it fouls the beach, it will be removed, and your Caribbean vacation will go on. And until it then, enjoy the pool.

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