Red tide is becoming a major issue on Florida’s west coast

A beach along Florida's Gulf coast. Red tide is becoming a major concern in portions of the west coast of the state. (File Photo) (j.s. clark/Wikimedia Commons)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Beaches across parts of the west coast of Florida are dealing with a significant issue.

It’s called red tide, and it can completely ruin a day of surf and sun.

What is red tide?

Red tide is officially known as harmful algal blooms, or HABs. These HABs are huge algae blooms the create algae-produced toxins, which greatly reduce oxygen levels in the water.

These blooms often turn deep red, creating the “red tide.” The particular algae that impacts the Gulf of Mexico is called Karenia brevis.

Red tide often impacts multiple miles of Gulf coast beaches and can last for months.

Because of the reduced oxygen, red tide often kills fish and organisms. This creates a decaying stench along the beach.

Red tide along Florida's gulf coast in 2019. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Red tide can also cause eye and respiratory irritation in people. The respiratory irritation can be particularly severe in those that have preexisting respiratory conditions, like asthma.

Red tide troubles

Red tide is a concern along the Gulf coasts of Florida and South Texas, but this year’s red tide is particularly intense along the Florida west coast.

High levels of Karenia brevis are being reported in a wide swath from Sarasota all the way down to Naples.

Reported red tide conditions on the Gulf Coast.

The National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science has issued an alert for moderate to high respiratory irritation from red tide at the beaches across this area.

Red tide will likely persist in some capacity over the next several weeks in this region, impacting beach plans for spring breakers.

Why so intense this year?

Scientists are still studying how red tide develops and why it lasts at varying times.

It is known that red tide and the algae Karenia brevis are impacted by sunlight, nutrients and salinity. The tide is also impacted by wind speed and direction, along with Gulf currents.

It is also known that tropical storms and hurricane impact red tide.

Meteorologists have noted intense red tide events after major hurricanes in the Gulf. A major red tide event occurred in months after Hurricane Irma hit Southwest Florida in 2017.

Major hurricanes churn up the Gulf waters in a wide swath. This movement of waters could increase the development of Karenia brevis.

It is possible that the intensity of the red tide may be partially attributed to Ian’s landfall on Sept. 28.

Can red tide happen on Atlantic beaches?

The algae that creates red tide is found almost exclusively in the Gulf of Mexico -- but that doesn’t mean it’s exclusive to Florida’s west coast.

Red tide blooms can be moved by ocean currents, and portions of these blooms have crossed over into the Atlantic.

Sometimes these blooms drift away from the coast and enter the Gulf Loop Current. From there, the current pushes the blooms south toward the Florida Keys.

The blooms are then picked up by the Gulf Stream and can lift northward toward Florida’s east coast.

While rare, red tide can move into the Atlantic.

South Florida has reported red tide events in previous years.

Even the coastline of Northeast Florida has reported red tide.

Chief Meteorologist John Gaughan remembers red tide lifting through the Gulf Stream and then being pushed back toward the Jacksonville area during a nor’easter event.

Red tide is very rare for Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia — but not necessarily impossible.

Red tide events are always a concern for Florida’s west coast beaches, and this year’s bloom is already impacting life along the “other” coast.

About the Author:

David Heckard is The Weather Authority's Assistant Chief Meteorologist.