GALVESTON, Texas — Beach visitors might be able to better plan visits to the island when researchers launch a website next year that could forecast sargassum levels.
Using national satellite images, a team from the University of South Florida and Texas A&M University at Galveston are working to plot the free-floating algae’s origins and predict when the seaweed will wash ashore.
Researchers have long said that sargassum comes from the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean, but a study in 2008 suggested that the Gulf of Mexico could be a nursery area.
"It could be a combination of both from the Sargasso Sea and the Gulf," said Wendy Tabone, a graduate student at Texas A&M University at Galveston. "Natural systems are very complex, but once we know where it’s coming from we can look at those factors and see what those years had in common."
In Galveston, seaweed can wash ashore in "football-sized" clumps to "knee-deep" mats, Tabone said. The island’s heaviest years of the marine mass were in 2003 and 2004.
"Since then, we have had moderate inundation," Tabone said.
The park board, which is responsible for maintaining the island’s beaches, annually spends about $2.5 million on seaweed removal, cleaning and trash pickup on island beaches.
Tabone said "a perfect storm" of several factors could affect how much of the vegetation washes up on the island.
"Currents have to be right," she said. "There’s a lot of things in play. Temperature, salinity, ocean currents and a lot of other things involved — that’s when you have those huge mats that come ashore."
And it’s when the mats of vegetation pile on the beaches that you get a problem, Tabone said.
"When it’s out in the Gulf, it’s alive," she said. "But once it’s ashore, it dies. That’s where you get the smell."
Sargassum provides a marine habitat for tuna, dolphin, wahoo and sea turtles. It is also called "sea holly" because of its branches and hollow, berry-shaped floats and leaflike blades.
"We realize the importance of it," she said. "It’s important for sea turtle habitats and it’s like a rain forest. It’s almost like a reef."
On land, the algae has been unsuccessfully used as fertilizer and dunes, Tabone said. Combing the sargassum with sand is expensive, and the dune structures made from it don’t last long.
But if researchers can pinpoint a pattern, Tabone said they can offer a service that other beach resorts already provide to guests.
In Hawaii, visitors can go online and find advisories for jellyfish in specific areas. In Chesapeake Bay, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched a project that provides a forecast weekly showing the likelihood of sea nettles, a type of jellyfish.
"What we’re hoping is we’ll be able to give people a heads up," she said. "They can prepare and beach maintenance can have equipment ready to go to work."
This story was brought to you thanks to khou.com’s partnership with The Galveston County Daily News.