$5 million awarded to multi-institution team to understand red tide in Florida

September 19, 2019

Researchers will apply lessons learned about harmful algal blooms in Chesapeake to help understand red tide in Gulf of Mexico

CAMBRIDGE, MD (September 19, 2019)—The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has awarded nearly $5 million to an interdisciplinary team from six institutions including the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) to investigate how climate change and extreme precipitation events exacerbate harmful algal blooms, such as red tide, in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Researchers from UMCES’ Horn Point Laboratory will build on work they’ve been doing on harmful algal blooms in the Chesapeake Bay to help understand what is happening on the western Florida shelf.

“We are excited about this project because it builds on the predictive modeling work that we have been doing in Chesapeake Bay,” said co-investigator and University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Professor Pat Glibert. “We’ll be taking many of the approaches that we learned about harmful algal blooms here and exporting them to coastal Florida.”

UMCES Professors Pat Glibert and Ming Li have been working on develop a new model to better predict the long-term occurrences of dangerous and costly harmful algal blooms in the Chesapeake Bay. Like many waterways around the world, the Bay and its tributaries have long suffered from harmful algae blooms, or HABs, caused by excess nutrients running off of the land, due largely to a continually growing population and the development of animal and plant agriculture in the watershed.

“We are concerned about harmful algal blooms because they are increasing in frequency and magnitude. We see more blooms more often in more places,” said Glibert. “We are hoping to advance the understanding of the Florida red tides, which were devastating last year.”

Last year, the western coast of Florida suffered one of the worst bouts of red tide—a bloom of the toxic dinoflagellate Karenia brevis—in the state’s history. The bloom, which dissipated this past February, was one of the largest in 10 years plagued the eastern Gulf Coast for more than 15 months and resulted in massive economic and environmental impacts, including beach closures, people visiting emergency rooms, hundreds of dead manatees and turtles, and major fish kills. 

Professor Pat Glibert explains what is a harmful algal bloom

The recent bloom highlighted the need to address aspects of K. brevis bloom ecology that have been understudied: the role of extreme weather events in the intensity and duration of blooms, and the factors that lead to bloom decline. Little is known of the biological, chemical, and physical factors that determine where, when, and how K. brevis blooms expand and ultimately end.  Such knowledge is required for effective bloom management, including modeling efforts that allow for long-term prediction, minimization of bloom-related economic damage to marine industries and tourism, and the development of targeted mitigation efforts.

“One of things we are going to be doing is to develop the next generation predictive model of the blooms,” said Glibert. “We want to be able to not only understand the biology of the organisms but to better predict when and where blooms will occur, and the driving factors that lead to blooms.”

The five-year project, led by Cynthia Heil at Mote Marine Laboratory, brings an interdisciplinary team from Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, New York University-Abu Dhabi, University of South Florida, and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science together to understand community ecology and ecosystem dynamics, including top-down and bottom up control of harmful algal blooms (HABs), and to determine the effects of environmental change, such as eutrophication, ocean acidification and/or climate change, on HABs and their impacts. The project also aims to develop new models for forecasting and predicting K. brevis blooms.

Glibert and Li are in the final year of a three-year project to develop a framework for scientists and natural resources managers to understand the impact of blooms by two of the most common microscopic algae in the Chesapeake Bay. Prorocentrum minimum, better known as "mahogany tide," can severely reduce the amount of oxygen available to living things, killing fish and altering food webs. Kalrodinium veneficum produces a toxin that has been implicated in fish-kill events in the Chesapeake Bay, as well been as associated with failure of oyster spawning and development. The model would be a tool to play out a number of different scenarios to understand the impact of different potential management decisions and ecosystem responses over decades.

“The bloom in Florida is right now comparatively small, but it’s this time of year that it often starts to ramp up. This is the time to be keeping an eye out,” said Glibert.

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) is a leading research and educational institution working to understand and manage the world’s resources. From a network of laboratories spanning from the Allegheny Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, UMCES scientists provide sound advice to help state and national leaders manage the environment and prepare future scientists to meet the global challenges of the 21st century.  www.umces.edu

# # #