They’d seen seaweed before, but nothing like this.
From the shores of Nigeria, to remote villages in the West Indies, to the tourist beaches of Quintana Roo and the glossy high rises of Florida, the seaweed kept coming. Each incoming tide added to the precarious cliffs of algae until they were taller than grown men. The piles reeked of decay, disgorging dead fish and smothered turtles. Tourists stayed away. Out in the harbors, boats floated, useless, on dense tides of solid brown weeds. In the past, villagers might have harvested the beached seaweed to dry or bury as fertilizer, but the sheer volume of it on the shoreline—trapped and rotting—made any practical use impossible. They could only watch as the piles grew higher. The year was 2011, and something was wrong.
An attempt to find a solution to this ecological mystery has been underway for the better part of the past decade, a search that has stretched from the Sahara Desert to the Amazon rainforest, from the Bermuda triangle to outer space. More importantly, it would serve as a reminder of how little we know about what’s happening in the oceans that occupy the majority of our planet—and of how rapidly our own actions might be changing them beyond recognition.
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If you’ve ever been out on a boat, you’ve probably seen pelagic sargassum. It floats on the ocean’s surface in narrow, shifting bands, driven by the competing forces of wind and water. From above, sun-baked sargassum rafts look like barren, discolored ribbons of oceanic detritus. From below, they are as complex and teeming with life as inverted coral reefs. Green-brown fronds trail spherical air sacs; coin-sized sea turtles and fish whose patterns imitate sun on water dart in and out of the algal forest. In tropical waters, where nutrients are scarce and marine life scattered, a sargassum raft is an oasis of life and productivity. Floating sargassum acts as a mobile buffet, supporting entire food chains, from primary producers to top predators.
Looking closer at a sargassum mat, you might notice two different plants: needle-leaved Sargassum natans, which forms the majority of pelagic sargassum biomass, and broad-leaved, bushy Sargassum fluitans, which makes up the rest. Although the sargassum family includes hundreds of other members, most are sedentary plants tethered to the seafloor. These two species, found only in the Atlantic, are the only fully pelagic (open sea) members of their genus.
For a long time, the origins of floating sargassum remained a mystery. Were the plants that formed them completely free-living? Or had they once been rooted before becoming detached by waves or storms? The confusion stemmed from the fact that nobody had ever found reproductive organs on either of the two floating sargassum species. Eventually, observers concluded that pelagic sargassum really do reproduce at sea. When enough nutrients are available, the plants undergo rapid growth and, in a process called vegetative fragmentation, break into smaller pieces. These independent offshoots eventually form mature plants, and the cycle begins again.
Adding further to the mystery, until fairly recently, observers could only guess at where sargassum mats came from. In a 1914 speech to the American Philosophical Society, naturalist William Farlow summed up a few of the more colorful speculations: “Von Marten’s theory that the gulf-weed originated in the Indian Ocean and was carried by currents round the Cape of Good Hope to the Sargasso Sea has nothing to support it, nor can the theory of Ed. Forbes that the floating gulf-weed is the survival of Sargassum growing on the submerged Atlantis be seriously considered.”
Thanks to remote sensing, we now have a more accurate idea of where sargassum originates (unfortunately, not Atlantis). Although small blooms of sargassum occur throughout the tropics, most sargassum production is concentrated in a few hotspots, particularly the northwestern Gulf of Mexico, where sargassum plants grow and fragment each spring during periods of high nutrient availability. Their offshoots catch a ride on powerful loop currents to the Gulf Stream, which eventually brings them to the Sargasso Sea, east of the Bahamas. The Sargasso Sea, considered the world’s only sea with no terrestrial boundaries, is enormous, borderless, and bright blue. It is ringed by competing oceanic currents that convey passive oceanic drifters—hatchling sea turtles, larvae from fish and eels, trash—into a sort of watery holding cell. Those that can leave under their own steam eventually do, once they grow large enough; those that can’t either spin off on fortuitous ocean currents or float around in a permanent raft of flotsam until they decompose. While the Sargasso Sea likely doesn’t produce much new sargassum—nutrients there are too scarce to support large-scale growth and fragmentation—it’s very good at collecting it.
It’s no coincidence that the location of the Sargasso Sea matches that of the Bermuda Triangle, a mysterious stretch of ocean where things are known to vanish, never to be seen again. Sailors from Columbus onward reported sargassum mats thick enough to impede navigation—or even disable ships. Writing for the royal geographical Society in 1925, Captain C.C. Dixon asked:
Who could know whether this weed got thicker and thicker till there was no turning back? Its changing tints and shadows as daylight faded and at the approach of dawn needed but little help from the imagination to be wrought into fearsome monsters that inhabited its depth and whose very appearance would steal away one’s sanity.
Mariners imaginatively conjured a gyre of ghost ships from every era of navigation, tangled in sargassum and doomed to turn in endless circles until they disintegrated or sank. In modern times, the Sargasso Sea is described, perhaps more realistically, as containing a large amount of seagrass diluted over a vast region, only occasionally forming the epic mats described in early narratives (never thick enough to actually trap a ship).
Until recently, sargassum patterns were relatively easy to predict. From their Sargasso Sea stronghold, modest quantities might shoot off into the Gulf Stream, catch lateral currents, or ride storm surges that convey them to tropical beaches on either side of the Atlantic. However, in 2011, that pattern abruptly changed. In the Caribbean, sargassum deposits grew to several meters thick, obscuring the sand and turning nearshore waters into seething sargassum soup. Along the shores of West Africa, similarly unprecedented levels of sargassum choked the ocean beaches.
Although news coverage of the sargassum bloom tended to focus on lost revenue from tourism, excess sargassum is more than just an aesthetic concern. At sea, sargassum is buoyant and full of life; landlocked, it’s heavy and putrid. While small amounts of beached sargassum can create refuges for invertebrates and provide foraging areas for shorebirds, large quantities quickly become unusable and dangerous. Deep deposits can bury hatchling sea turtles, who emerge from nests laid months earlier to find themselves beneath meters-deep vegetation. Decaying sargassum also releases hydrogen sulfide, a noxious gas that can be mildly toxic to humans.
The source of the sudden sargassum influx proved difficult to pinpoint. Initial theories ranged from the effects of dispersants used to sink oil during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Mississippi Delta to unusually severe African dust storms that airlifted nutrients to the Atlantic.
Oddly enough, the eventual solution came from outer space. Images of ocean reflectivity from satellites proved able to distinguish floating sargassum mats, which appear as dark spots, from the surrounding water. By examining satellite imagery from that year, scientists noticed a new hotspot for sargassum production: an area off the northern coast of Brazil, at the outflow of the Amazon River, where in the past hardly any sargassum growth had been detected. The amount of sargassum produced in this new area dwarfed any previous estimates from outside the Sargasso Sea. Although sargassum production fluctuates between years, the assumption was always that the lack of nutrients in the offshore waters of the Sargasso Sea imposed a ceiling on the amount of sargassum that could grow at any given time. This new hotspot, disturbingly close to shore, next to a highly productive river mouth, isn’t limited by a lack of nutrients or blocked in by an oceanic gyre. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more ideal producer and exporter of sargassum.
Since 2011, the increase in sargassum production and distribution has persisted, with abnormal sargassum blooms in at least five of the last eight years. 2015 was a new record year, and 2018 is already on track to surpass it; peak deposits are expected in late summer and through the fall. The blooms reflect a combination of environmental conditions, but are particularly severe in years with above-average sea-surface temperatures and high levels of nutrients in the Amazon river. Nutrient levels in the Amazon basin are increasing, driven mainly by nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizers used in areas of rainforest recently converted to farmland. Downstream, their fertilizing effects are equally powerful for marine vegetation, sargassum included.
Although it’s difficult to know exactly how sargassum blooms first took hold in the region, they aren’t likely to go away any time soon. The continuing conversion of Brazilian rainforests to agriculture fuels a constant demand for fertilizer, of which Brazil is one of the highest consuming nations on earth. Between steadily rising sea-surface temperatures and ever-increasing nutrient loads, it seems almost certain that high sargassum productivity will persist or increase in the Amazon outflow, and could spread to similar regions of nearshore tropical ocean. By all predictive measures, sargassum blooms are here to stay.
So, what’s the solution? Mass harvesting of sargassum at sea is impractical, with negative consequences for the many marine species that use sargassum mats as refuges, nurseries, and foraging areas. Once the plants wash ashore, removing the massive piles becomes even more challenging—and potentially damaging to sensitive beach habitat. Until now, measures to address the sargassum influx have been short-term and piecemeal. Mexico has hired thousands of people to manually rake the seaweed, deployed floating barriers to keep it from reaching beaches, and used hydraulic pumps to collect it on the open ocean. However, there are signs of developing interest in the potential uses of sargassum: in fertilizers, biofuels, sunscreens, or food products. Learning to live with sargassum will depend on finding a balance, for tourists and fishermen as well as for pipefish and sea turtles.
Meanwhile, much about sargassum remains a mystery. It may not grow on the lost city of Altantis, or harbor ancient galleons doomed to spend eternity floating in circles. Although American and European eels are known to breed in the Sargasso Sea, nobody has ever seen them spawn in the wild. Perhaps it’s time for a new sargassum mythology: not one of monsters or shipwrecks, but of the profound mystery and vulnerability of the ocean itself.