GALVESTON, Texas -- Everybody from the experts to the tourists to the "born on the island" natives agrees: The smelly mounds of seaweed piled on Galveston's beaches are the worst anybody can remember. And seaweed specialists say they saw it coming.
"We could tell that there were going to be issues with it way before it actually happened," said Robert Webster, a research assistant and doctoral candidate at Texas A&M – Galveston.
From a warren of cluttered offices tucked into a building on the university's island campus, seaweed specialists monitor images snapped from orbit by NASA's Landsat satellites. Watching the flow of seaweed from what's known as the Sargasso Sea just east of Florida, they issue seaweed forecasts for coastal communities concerned about the cleaning their beaches.
"We can use the currents, surface currents, and the surface winds to predict its movements," Webster said.
A few months ago, Webster said, they anticipated a larger than normal amount of sargassum – the scientific term describing the stuff – floating around the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. Its proliferation ebbs and flows in cycles lasting roughly 30 years, Webster said, and the last year happened to be a bumper year.
Cold fronts kept the sargassum in the southern Gulf and the Bay of Campeche longer than usual, where it continued to thrive in the warm waters. Then it headed north, toward the beaches of Texas and Louisiana.
"It was kind of the perfect storm," Webster said. "We had multiple things that happened that contributed to it and caused this massive amount of landing."
Satellite photos taken earlier this year show large areas of seaweed floating in the Gulf toward the Texas coastline.
"This is the stuff that kept going back and forth, back and forth," Webster said, pointing to one of the pictures. "And each time it went from a slick to a mat, just continued growing."
Out of the A&M campus on Pelican Island, students and faculty run the Sargassum Early Advisory System, a NASA-financed project reporting how large mats of seaweed move from the Atlantic and into the Gulf. They've expanded their forecasts to encompass more beach areas as the program has grown.
Forecasting the flow of seaweed is about as tricky as forecasting the weather, so there are no guarantees. But if weather patterns remain consistent, Webster believes we may have seen the worst of the seaweed for this summer.
"The rest of the summer, as long as we have the west wind that's blowing right now, everything is good," he said. "We're going to see very little sargassum. If we start having those cold fronts return, then all bets are off."