How serious is the red tide? Scientists create an index to quantify it

It’s a question we ask ourselves every summer when the smell of rotten fish invades the beaches: how serious is the red tide? The researchers made a scale to tell you.

ST. PETE BEACH, Florida – Summer in Florida means sunshine, humidity and, especially recently, red tide. When the flowers are bad, it means avoiding certain beaches and checking wind levels and directions before hitting the beach.

But what is “bad” for the red tide?

Now researchers can give you a definitive answer. Until recently, there was no standardized way to measure individual blooms and their impacts.

Scientists examined red tide samples along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Cell counts of Karenia brevis, a species of harmful algal bloom that causes red tide, were performed to create a bloom severity index and a respiratory irritation index.

Dr. Rick Stumpf is an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He helped develop an index to measure the red tide. He explained that the severity will be measured on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst red tide conditions the state has seen.

“[We took] measuring cell concentration, Karenia brevis, is the microorganism that makes the red tide,” Stumpf said. “We take concentration in water. We looked at it in what we call dumpsters in the water along the coast. We took data every 20 miles along the coast and looked at it by month. When we calculate severity it comes down to how much of the coast is affected and how many months have been affected when you count all of that. It also means we can look at the frequency of blooms in different areas.”

In a statement from the Gulf Coast Coastal Ocean Observing System, these two indices create “a standardized and objective way to assess the severity of red tides, which should help decision-makers better assess the risks of red tides when blooms occur and to respond in ways that mitigate the impacts of the bloom on public health and local economies.”

These new tools will not only allow experts to share more information about existing blooms, but also to create bloom forecasts.

In addition to an index to help track the severity of the red tide, the researchers also created a tool to track respiratory predictions. This allows users to get real-time data on red tide impacts along our Gulf Coast beaches.

“People may know if they can go to the beach this morning, tomorrow, or which beach we can go to,” Stumpf said.

Stumpf said he hopes these new tools not only help people stay safe and healthy by streamlining data, but also help beach businesses better plan for red tide season.

“We often feel like the red tide is everywhere all the time,” Stumpf said. “It’s really bad for people who work on the beach, for businesses on the beach. And on the other hand, for people who don’t know what’s going on, they can go to the beach and get sick. Trying to keep people healthy and keeping the people and companies that work there financially healthy.”

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