Weather and Natural Disasters

Florida waits to see if Hurricane Michael put an end to red tide outbreak

Key Points
  • Hurricane Michael hit land early Wednesday afternoon, potentially effecting the algae that produces red tide. However, experts are uncertain if it will make it better or worse.
  • Increased windspeeds could be more detrimental to red tide, and therefore better for beachgoers.
  • Increased rainfall could bring more breeding grounds for red tide, thus more algae, odor, and danger for fish and swimmers.
Waves take over a house as Hurricane Michael comes ashore in Alligator Point, Florida, October 10, 2018.
Carlo Allegri | Reuters

Experts will not know until next week whether Hurricane Michael, with its powerful winds, helped break up the toxic algae bloom that has been plaguing Florida's coastline for the past year.

As a general rule, increased winds can be detrimental to "red tide," breaking it up and bringing an end to the outbreak. But increased rainfall could bring more breeding grounds for the algae, making a bad situation even worse.

Hurricane Michael made landfall on the Florida Panhandle Wednesday, packing winds that hit 150 miles per hour, according to the National Hurricane Center.

"If we use Hurricane Katrina as a replication of what happened on the Panhandle yesterday, there are good reasons to think that the strong winds disrupted the the red tide," said Serge Thomas, an associate professor in the Department of Marine and Ecological Sciences at Florida Gulf Coast University.

That was the case with Katrina in 2005, which swept through the Gulf of Mexico, disrupting the algae.

The current bloom has persisted since October 2017, but intensified and spread further up the Panhandle as a result of Tropical Storm Gordon in September 2018, according to NOAA.

The effects of red tide can be lethal, with the potential to kill birds, sea animals and shellfish in the affected areas. The odor also chases away beachgoers. Not to mention that toxins released into the air can cause respiratory problems, making some beaches less safe to visit and hurting tourism in the area. Those with chronic asthma or emphysema are at a greater risk.

Consuming filter-feeder mollusks such as oysters and clams from red tide water can lead to neurotoxic shellfish poisoning. While not lethal, NSP can cause diarrhea and discomfort for about three days, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Tropical Storm Michael moved into Georgia & the Carolinas Thursday
Tropical Storm Michael moved into Georgia & the Carolinas Thursday

Red tide can also be costly in economic terms as well. Currently, the algae cause about $82 million in economic losses to the seafood, restaurant, and tourism industries each year. Red tide reduces tourism, closes beaches and shellfish beds, and decreases the catch from both recreational and commercial fisheries, according to NOAA.

As of Tuesday red tide affected over a dozen counties in the state, stretching over 145 miles, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. High concentrations were found in Pinellas, Manatee, and Palm Beach counties, and offshore of Charlotte county. The less concentrated algae has been recorded in parts of Sarasota, Bay, St. Lucie, Martin and Palm Beach counties.

"I think that the wind disturbance will override the nutrients running to the coast," Thomas said, reflecting the role Hurricane Michael can play.

Rob Young, Director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, said that Hurricane Michael was pushing the red tide offshore as it was approaching. Hurricanes can also cool water, creating inhospitable environments for red tide. However, he said, "we sort of have to wait and see," what the impact will be.

Keeley Belva, a NOAA spokeswoman, echoed this. She said, "It will likely be a week or so before we know more about the status."

If Hurricane Michael is able to ameliorate the red tide in the Gulf of Mexico, there's always a chance it could come back by way of natural causes.

"We can have more red tides in the future, but that will be because of natural occurrences," Thomas said.

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