Magazine article Science News

Toxic Tides: Another Reason to Worry about Hurricanes

Magazine article Science News

Toxic Tides: Another Reason to Worry about Hurricanes

Article excerpt

When Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne struck Florida in the summer of 2004, they killed 116 people, left thousands homeless, and caused billions of dollars in damage. Now, scientists suggest that the storms may also have triggered an intense, widespread Gulf of Mexico algae bloom that afflicted the state's western coast throughout 2005.

Commonly called red tides regardless of their color, toxic algal blooms frequently occur in the shallow waters off Florida's west-central coast. The organism primarily responsible for red tides there undergoes population explosions that scientists have been working to explain for more than a century, says Chuanmin Hu, an oceanographer at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. Toxins produced by the algae accumulate in shellfish, kill sea creatures, and irritate the eyes and respiratory systems of boaters and beachgoers.

At its peak, the 2005 red tide covered more than 67,000 square kilometers of shallow coastal waters--an area larger than the state of West Virginia. Hu and his colleagues now suggest that blame for the bloom falls on algae-boosting nutrients that reached the Gulf via the discharge of groundwater beneath the Gulf's surface. That seepage was driven by precipitation that had collected on land during and after the 2004 hurricanes.

One theory holds that red tides are fueled by phosphorus- and nitrogen-bearing plant nutrients brought to the region by local rivers or carried there from the Mississippi River by ocean currents. However, Hu calculated, those sources probably provided only one-fifth the amount of nitrogen that was needed to sustain the algal bloom. …

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