Last year beaches along the Gulf and other temperate waters worldwide were inundated with Sargassum, the free-floating tangle of reddish-brown seaweed that causes problems for fishermen, boaters, tourists and residents. In some places, drifts of the smelly seaweed were piled several feet high.
So far in 2015, scientists say, there is a large amount of Sargassum in the Gulf of Mexico, though other regions seem to be getting the most landings on their beaches.
This year, local officials can monitor any impending landings of the seaweed using an app developed jointly by NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, the Naval Research Laboratory at Stennis and Texas A&M University at Galveston.
The Sargassum Early Advisory System (SEAS) web app’s first version uses satellite data to detect the floating seaweed and forecasts its drifting movement using an ocean computer model and virtual buoys.
Developers say the app, which is being fine-tuned, can give residents, coastal businesses and local authorities a helpful heads up so they can be prepared for any potential issues such as cleanup and disposal of the seaweed.
NASA’s Duane Armstrong, chief of the Applied Science & Technology Projects branch at Stennis, said, “It’s a great tool to put in the hands of businesses and community leaders. There’s been a lot of interest in it.”
Armstrong got the idea that an app could be developed from a manual prediction system that Texas A&M scientists devised. “It required a lot of effort on somebody’s part to reorient and analyze the data so we are automating all those features,” Armstrong said.
By September, all app users can customize the app so they can receive alerts telling them that the seaweed is on its way to their local beach, vacation destination or wherever they choose.
Developers say the app has attracted a lot of media attention from outlets including National Public Radio and Telemundo and from locations across the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.
“We have had interest from Mexico, the Dominican Republic and other places in the Caribbean,” Armstrong said. “We want to make sure the tool can be expanded to new areas.”
The seaweed app has other applications as well, Armstrong said. “Some of the algorithms we used can also be used to help improve our ability to detect ocean oil spills, and that work is ongoing with NOAA and NRL.” Another variation of the app can be tailored for oyster fisheries and assist leaseholders and state agencies to monitor the oyster resource.
Armstrong said Texas A&M will maintain and host the app at the Galveston campus.
To access the website, go to sargassum.tamug.edu.