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Florida Scientists: Social Media Can Track Toxic Algae

Red tides, caused by the Karenia brevis organism, occur naturally in the Gulf of Mexico each year. However, the blooms can be intensified by human nutrient pollution along the coast, but social media info can help.

Miami Beach
(TNS) — Scientists are tapping into social media to learn how to better track one of Florida’s most prevalent harmful algal blooms: red tide.

Red tides, caused by the Karenia brevis organism, occur naturally in the Gulf of Mexico each year. However, the blooms can be intensified by human nutrient pollution along the coast. Scientists believe that such pollution may have helped fuel recent serious bouts with the toxic algae in Southwest Florida.

When it reaches elevated concentrations in the water, K. brevis can wreak havoc on the marine environment. Toxins released by the algae can kill swaths of wildlife, from small fish to dolphins and manatees. Vast mats of algae and and darkened waters can deprive imperiled seagrass beds, which support marine ecosystems, of necessary sunlight.

Southwest Florida and the Tampa Bay area experienced major red tide blooms in 2021. Prior to that, a long-lasting and extreme red tide persisted in the area from 2017-19.

The impacts, from piles of rotting fish to foul air at the beach, were often unavoidable for residents and visitors. Naturally, they started documenting the phenomena with their smartphones.

In a study published this month for “Harmful Algae” journal, Southwest Florida scientists turned to Twitter data from the 2017-19 event to see how social media users’ posts corresponded with the intensity and locations of the blooms. The paper is a collaboration between the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, Florida New College and the Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida.

And the results are promising, according to the researchers. The Twitter data revealed strong correlations between the number and sentiment of tweets in a region and how intense the red tide was there. For instance, during weeks when dead fish counts were high in Pinellas, Sarasota and Manatee counties, researchers found corresponding increases in tweets with a negative sentiment in those counties.

“The research highlighted how crowd-sourced information from social media could be used to identify hotspots and understand community perceptions about algae blooms in real-time,” Tampa Bay Estuary Program Executive Director Ed Sherwood told the Bradenton Herald in an email.

The results show that Twitter could be a nifty tool in responding to future red tide events, according to the researchers.

While social media posts can’t replace the value of monitoring blooms in the field, they can provide important supplemental information, according to Marcus Beck, a program scientist with Tampa Bay Estuary Program and one of the lead researchers on the paper.

“A future goal supported by this research is that local governments could use Twitter to inform recovery and cleanup efforts in locations where on the ground data are unavailable,” Beck said in an email.

In addition to helping government officials monitor where cleanup is needed most, the social media posts could also help them craft relevant messaging to the public during a red tide crisis, the paper says.

“This novel assessment can potentially reduce costs and aid in the future response and management of red tide blooms along our coast,” Sherwood added.

© 2021 The Bradenton Herald (Bradenton, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.