Red tide feared to return after Hurricane Ian

Many Floridians remember shoals of dead fish along beaches and signs warning beachgoers to stay out of the water thanks to a two-year red tide outbreak after Hurricane Irma. Now an environmental engineer fears a repeat after Hurricane Ian.

“Every time we get a regular storm event, we have all this nutrient loading from fertilizers or herbicides or sewage overflows,” Tracy Fanara, environmental engineer and author of red tide research, told FOX Weather Monday. “Now, this was next level.”

Red tide is a naturally occurring harmful algal bloom. The algae, always in the water, consume the newfound nutrients and bloom out of control. The blooms produce toxins that kill fish, shellfish, birds and mammals. The algae and toxins can irritate the skin, eyes and respiratory tract of humans, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

People can get sick after eating fish or shellfish from red tide areas, Fanara told FOX Weather last fall.

“Then with Hurricane Ian we have all these chemical components. We have underwater cars, we have so much more bacteria because not only did we have sewage overflows, we had pipes burst. We have people who can’t flush toilets because the water table is so high . So they’re actually using the outdoors as their toilet,” Fanara explained of Hurricane Ian’s effects on overloading nutrients available to algae. “So we have all these bacteria coming into our coastal waters. And that’s our biggest concern right now is the bacteria levels, the pathogen levels.”

A Goliath grouper killed by red tide in 2018
Eating fish from red tide areas can cause illnesses.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

And it’s not just the Gulf Coast that’s inundated with nutrient-rich floodwaters. Over 7 million gallons of sewage leaked through manhole covers, flooded streets in Brevard County then into the Indian River Lagoon, FOX 35 Orlando reported.

“When I look at this now, I just see it being used as a toilet,” environmentalist Estelle Bailey told FOX 35 Orlando.

Photos from astronaut Bob “Farmer” Hines aboard International Space Station showed massive amounts of debris and sludge being dumped into the Gulf of Mexico days after Ian struck.

From the ISS, an astronaut took pictures of the silt, dirt and pollution-laden waters from Hurricane Ian flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.
The dirt and silt that flows into the Gulf of Mexico is made up in part of fertilizers and pollutants.
NASA

The water and dirt are filled with decomposing felled trees, manure from farms and pollutants.

“This image shows how the Florida peninsula is dumping all the water Hurricane Ian dumped on it,” Hines tweetedadds the photo was taken two days after Ian’s landfall.

Upwelling, a possible source of red tides

Tampa Bay Region also experienced a reverse storm surge, just as they did during Irma. When Ian made landfall, its winds blew bay water away from Tampa Bay. The residents could actually go out into the bay.

The same reverse surge occurred during Hurricane Irma in 2017. Meteorologist Ian Oliver referred to the event as “Irma 2.0” during Ian’s landfall.

Fanara said the reverse increase could have resulted in upwelling. Deeper, colder, nutrient-rich water from well below could have flowed to the surface.

“The best hypothesis we have is that these upwellings are offshore on the ocean floor. Now, with the upwelling that we saw from the water being pushed off Tampa Bay, it looks a lot like Hurricane Irma, which we know has launched a upwelling event.”

The massive red tide bloom in Florida from late 2017 to early 2019 killed nearly 600 sea turtles, more than 200 manatees and over 204 dolphins, according to a Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium report.

The bloom also hurt tourism by keeping beachgoers away and cut the local fishing industry’s bottom line.

Fanara and her colleagues will continue to monitor Florida waters for red tide. At the same time is Florida Red Tide Mitigation and Technology Development Initiative is in its third year of discovering strategies and technologies to reduce the amount and impact of blooms.

Other companies are looking to fight algae and ozone to restore areas where red tides depleted the water of oxygen or dead zones.

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