Red Tide Reports: There’s (Almost) An App For That

Mote Marine Laboratory is participating in a $1.1 million project that will provide more accurate red tide forecasts for Gulf Coast beaches.

Gulf Coast residents and visitors may soon be able to obtain more accurate red tide forecasts before they head out to local beaches.

Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory has announced its participation in a $1.1 million development project meant to take red tide data collection down to the beach level. Funded by a grant from NASA, the project involves the development of an app that will enable easier water sampling so researchers can provide forecasts for every beach, every day.

Organizations also taking part in the project include the Gulf of Mexico Coast Ocean Observing System, NOAA and the Florida Department of Health.

Once completed, the app will enable trained observers with special low-cost smartphone microscopes to collect water sample videos. These videos will then be uploaded to a cloud-based server for automated evaluation, a media release on the project explained. The system will then deliver a real-time response about the presence or absence of Karenia brevis, the organism that causes Florida’s red tide.

Red tide blooms are responsible for fish kills and may also cause the loss of tourism dollars. Red tide is an algae that occurs naturally in the Gulf. It can cause respiratory irritations in people when it accumulates in large amounts. Toxins in red tide can “enter the air and cause respiratory irritation among beachgoers, such as coughing, sneezing or a scratchy throat,” Mote explains on its website.

In addition to the app, the three-year grant from NASA will also support the fine-tuning of current red tide forecasting with the hope of providing a better reflection of what is occurring in the water on a more localized scale. The aim of the improved models and forecasts is to help people make informed, healthy choices about where to spend recreation time, the release explained. It will also increase protections for public health and coastal economies.

The need for enhanced forecasting and more localized data is high, Mote’s Dr. Tracy Fanara, manager of the laboratory’s environmental health program, told Patch.

“As we have seen from this past bloom, the public wants more information about what’s happening with red tide, and this app would help provide it,” Fanara said. “Next, this app will give scientists and the public quantitative data – counts of red tide algae cells – to support the qualitative, more subjective data being reported, such as respiratory irritation.”

While Mote has its Beach Conditions Reporting System that provides information about conditions at 27 beaches along the Gulf Coast, Fanara said, red tide blooms tend to be patchy. That means gaps in reporting may exist.

“So, filling in those gaps between reporting beaches with cell-count data will help alert the public to the presence or absence of red tide and help scientists with red tide research efforts,” Fanara added.

“Today, our forecasts provide information about where red tides are and where they’re going on a county level,” NOAA oceanographer Dr. Richard Stumpf explained. “But red tide blooms are patchy and the effects can vary greatly from beach to beach—even when the beaches are right next door to each other. By bringing in new technology, this project will get us much closer to the goal of a forecast for every beach, every day.”

At present, there are several different reporting systems meant to alert the public about red tide blooms in the Gulf. Each, officials say, have limitations. Those systems are:

The code for the app, which will open the door on improved reporting, is being written using open-source code. The hope is that by doing so, others will be able to take the tool and use it create similar applications to detect other harmful algae, officials said.

Just how soon the app will be completed is not known at this time. The grant covers a three-year period.

The Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System is a regional nonprofit organization with members from Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The organization’s goal is to provide products and observations needed for such things as preserving marine ecosystems, ensuring human health and managing resources, among others.

A red tide bloom in the Gulf has been causing some problems along the coast from Pinellas County south past Sarasota County in recent weeks. The concentration level of the red tide organism has been dropping, however.

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