It looks like the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt is here to stay.
Seaweed Bloom Delray Beach
Credit: Brian Cousin/Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute

The discovery of a 5,500-mile patch of brown seaweed that stretches across the Atlantic Ocean—from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico—could spell trouble for Southern beachgoers this year.

A team of scientists from Florida Atlantic University, the University of South Florida, and the Georgia Institute of Technology have identified the largest bloom of macroalgae in the world: a growing, moving mass they're calling the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt. Their ground-breaking findings were published in Science last week.

In the right amounts, Sargassum is essential for marine life. But too much can cause environmental, ecological, and economic problems. Thick mats of it make it hard for sea creatures to move and breathe, and when it dries, Sargassum releases hydrogen sulfide gas, which smells like rotten eggs. You might remember when the 20-million-ton belt reached Florida last year, forcing many of the state's pristine beaches to close due to the stench.

Seaweed Bloom Cancun
Credit: Michael Owen/USF College of Marine Science

The recurring event, which scientists believe is caused by climate change and fertilizer runoff in the Amazon, has been documented since 2011. Unfortunately, the seaweed bloom has been getting bigger each year, and according to researchers, this year looks worse than ever.

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Unless things change, scientists believe that the ever-growing Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt will be the new normal.

"There's a high chance we're still going to see a lot of them in future years," Mengqiu Wang, a researcher at USF College of Marine Science, said in a release. "So, people should find more strategies to handle this problem, and understand the impacts to the ecosystem and to humans as well."