Unveiling the Sickening Truth Behind the Unprecedented Seaweed Blobs
The Atlantic Ocean is witnessing a remarkable phenomenon - the largest bloom of sargassum ever recorded. It is accompanied by an unexpected entourage of plastic debris and a diverse array of bacteria that thrive upon it. These seemingly incongruous elements may hold the key to understanding the astonishing growth of this marine vegetation.
Along coastal regions of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, a colossal sea creature slithering 5,000 miles lies in wait. The phenomenon subtly infiltrates the surroundings, synchronizing its arrival with the fluctuating motion and flow of the oceanic currents. Its smelly presence often precedes its visual manifestation, leaving a distinct scent lingering in the air. In recent weeks, substantial accumulations of sargassum seaweed have been observed making landfall, obstructing oceanic waves and the widespread coverage of coastal areas with an unsightly and malodorous layer of brown vegetation.
The fragmentation of sizeable clusters from the vast expanse of unattached marine vegetation, commonly referred to as the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt, is underway. Spanning between the Gulf of Mexico and the western coast of Africa, this remarkable phenomenon is observable even from outer space.
According to scientific experts closely monitoring the development of sargassum in the Atlantic Ocean, there are alarming indications that this year's bloom is poised to surpass all previous records. In fact, by April, the estimated weight of this vast accumulation of seaweed is projected to exceed a staggering 13 million tons (equivalent to 12 million metric tonnes). The observed decrease in the quantity of seaweed witnessed by May amounted to approximately 15% compared to the preceding month.
In a recent study, researchers conducted a comprehensive analysis by collecting samples from the sargassum and the surrounding water encompassing seaweed blooms and various debris intermingled with the clumps.
The discoveries made, however, proved to be even more astonishing. The investigation may potentially unveil novel insights into the underlying factors contributing to the proliferation of these vast seaweed blooms.
Among the seaweed, there was a significant amount of plastic debris. This debris was filled with various types of Vibrio bacteria commonly found in saltwater and marine environments. The bacteria the researchers discovered were closely related to Vibrio cholerae, which is responsible for causing cholera. While Vibrio vulnificus, another bacteria mentioned, can cause necrotizing fasciitis if it enters open wounds.
Tracy Mincer, an assistant professor of biology at Florida Atlantic University, who led the research, explains that our laboratory experiments revealed that these Vibrio bacteria are highly aggressive and can quickly locate and attach themselves to plastic surfaces. Mincer believes these bacteria could adjust and become more accustomed to plastic materials.
The group discovered that many bacteria in their samples possessed a unique set of genes that enabled them to stick to the smooth surface of the plastic.
According to Mincer, we made another intriguing discovery related to a group of genes known as 'zot' genes. These genes are responsible for causing a condition called leaky gut syndrome. Bacteria with the zot genes produce toxins that make the intestinal tract more permeable. This can cause various symptoms, such as chronic diarrhea.
It is important for the public to avoid the sargassum when it appears on beaches and to wash their hands afterward.
Seaweed mats provide an ideal environment for young fish but also collect plastic waste, which can become a breeding ground for bacteria.
If a fish bites on a plastic object that has a thin layer of bacteria containing these genes, it can get infected. Mincer and his team discovered species closely related to pathogens that cause diseases in fish, crustaceans, and seahorses.
According to Mincer, it is believed that the diarrhea that occurs, as a result, could potentially increase the nutrient levels in the water, specifically nitrogen, and phosphate. This increase in nutrients could then promote the growth of the sargassum. As the sargassum blooms grow, the number of bacteria also increases, creating an ideal environment for the sargassum to thrive. This phenomenon is often referred to as a "pathogen storm."
If his theory is proven to be true, it could provide an important explanation for why the sargassum blooms have been able to grow to such large sizes.
Researchers have paid great attention to this phenomena since 2011, when an exponential rise in the prevalence of floating seaweed was first reported. Expanding seaweed into hitherto uncharted areas has sparked scientific interest even further. It has long been known that the Sargasso Sea, off the coasts of Central America and the United States, is the primary habitat for this occurrence. Its influence has grown substantially in recent decades, and its reach now extends to the western coast of Africa. Many recognize the widespread growth of floating seaweed as a serious issue. However, the scientific community is still deeply engaged in considerable disagreement about what variables are responsible for the dramatic expansion of sargassum.
The impact of climate change on the growth of sargassum, a unique species of seaweed that thrives in warmer waters, is widely acknowledged. According to a group of scientific experts, the surge in algae growth has been linked to the escalating agricultural practices in Brazil. In recent times, the world of farming has been buzzing with activity, which has had a fascinating consequence.
Picture this: as farmers work tirelessly to cultivate their crops, little do they know that their efforts are causing a surge in the transportation of vital nutrients downstream. And where do these nutrients end up? None other than the mighty Amazon River, which carries them on a grand adventure to the vast, endless ocean. It's like a journey for these nutrients, as they embark on a watery expedition, leaving a trail of life and sustenance in their wake. Since 2011, Brazil has witnessed an awe-inspiring surge in adopting agricultural fertilizers, capturing people's attention.
The emergence of nutrient-rich water upwelling off the West African coast during the winter months in the northern hemisphere has been identified as a potentially influential factor in the recent proliferation of blooms. The Sahara desert is renowned for generating dust clouds that exhibit an extraordinary capability to transport vital nutrients across extensive distances, traversing thousands of miles over the Atlantic Ocean. The existing body of evidence pertaining to the frequency of dust storms in the Sahara region presents an inconclusive picture characterized by conflicting research findings. Several studies have indicated a potential decline in the frequency of these events, accompanied by an escalation in their magnitude, as a direct result of climate change. On the other hand, alternative studies present the potential for a decrease in the occurrence of dust storms.
Currently, experts are encountering challenges in accurately forecasting the future growth of the sargassum bloom for this year. However, they assert that it will undoubtedly rank among the most substantial blooms documented thus far. June is traditionally associated with the pinnacle of the sargassum bloom.
The perpetual influx of debris is expected to persist as oceanic currents and prevailing winds facilitate its widespread distribution across various coastal regions.
According to Linda Amaral-Zettler, a distinguished marine microbiologist affiliated with the esteemed Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, the prevailing issue under scrutiny is the far-reaching impact across three distinct continents. The countries of Brazil, South Africa, the western coast of Africa, as well as numerous island nations in the Caribbean, are also subject to the impacts of this phenomenon.
The ramifications of this phenomenon are particularly pronounced within the tourism sector, as the emission of hydrogen sulfide by decaying algae engenders a pervasive stench reminiscent of decomposed eggs. The presence of sargassum can lead to the complete coverage of extensive beach areas, rendering them unattractive to potential visitors.
Although no evidence supports the existence of flesh-eating organisms inhabiting seaweed, scientists must caution individuals frequenting beaches about the potential risks associated with contact with sargassum.
According to Amara-Zettler, Vibrio bacteria are classified as "opportunistically pathogenic," indicating their propensity to exploit favorable conditions, such as an open wound, to initiate an invasion. When encountering an open wound, it is advisable to exercise caution and refrain from traversing sargassum seaweed, as scientific evidence suggests the presence of bacteria with pathogenic potential on this particular substrate.
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is estimated that vibriosis, a bacterial infection, is responsible for approximately 80,000 cases of illness and tragically claims the lives of 100 individuals annually within the United States.