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Local Red tide respiratory forecast now available

By Staff | Nov 7, 2019

An online Red Tide Respiratory Forecast, initially implemented in Pinellas County last year, recently expanded to Lee County to include three beaches on Sanibel after going live a few weeks ago.

Developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, in partnership with the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, the system uses near real-time cell counts of Karenia brevis – combined with wind speed and direction – to predict the risk levels on a beach.

A newly developed portable microscope system, called a HABscope, uses video and artificial intelligence to analyze the water samples within 30 seconds and uploads the information. For example, the software uses facial recognition to lock in on the brevis based on how its moves, as compared to other organisms in the sample, and conducts a count of it to determine the concentration level.

GCOOS Executive Director Dr. Barbara Kirkpatrick, an environmental health scientist who conducted the first studies documenting the impacts of Florida red tide blooms on human health, explained that the new forecast system is not intended to keep people off the beaches, but to alert them to what is safe.

“To minimize their exposure to the aerosolized toxins,” she said.

Karenia brevis, the marine organism that causes red tide, can have negative impacts on the respiratory system. Most people experience minor respiratory irritation, like coughing, sneezing, teary eyes and an itchy throat, when red tide is present and winds are blowing onshore. Typically, the symptoms go away when people leave the beach. But those with chronic lung problems, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, can have more severe reactions when they breathe in the airborne toxins – even ending up in the emergency room.

For the islands, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation will collect and upload samples from Bowman’s Beach and Tarpon Bay Road Beach, and the Sanibel Sea School will do Lighthouse Beach.

SCCF Marine Lab Director Dr. Eric Milbrandt explained that staff will collect samples weekly on Tuesday and Friday and the forecasts will cover a 48-hour window. The website will update every three hours. He noted that more frequent water sampling is possible, if the red tide conditions call for it. Milbrandt reported that the system is beneficial for residents and visitors.

“They’re able to avoid high-respiratory irritation situations,” he said.

Sanibel Sea School Outdoor Education Coordinator Kealy McNeal, who is serving as the red tide sampling coordinator, explained that they will collect samples from the Lighthouse Beach five days a week – Monday through Friday. She added that the Friday collections will forecast the weekends.

“This is an easy way for people to know what’s going on on our beaches,” McNeal said. “So you can plan your day and see which beach you want to go to.”

For more information or to view the forecast, visit habscope.gcoos.org/forecasts.