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Water-Related News

App in the works to forecast red tide in the Gulf of Mexico

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Mote Marine Laboratory will be collaborating on this project with GCOOS

Red tides caused by Karenia brevis (K. brevis) in the Gulf of Mexico can have a devastating effect on coastal communities, where severe blooms can cause millions of dollars in tourism losses and send people with chronic respiratory diseases to their local emergency rooms.

Now, a three-year $1.1 million grant from NASA is helping several organizations fine-tune current red tide forecasts with the goal of offering public health managers, coastal residents and visitors a forecast that better reflects coastal conditions on more localized scales. Improved models and forecasts for red tide conditions will help people make healthy choices about where to spend recreation time, increasing protections for public health and coastal economies.

Forecasts for Karenia brevis red tides in the Gulf of Mexico have come a long way over the last decade. But one key to providing forecasts for every beach, every day is the development of a new smartphone application that will use facial-recognition software to identify K. brevis in water samples right on the beach. In the image above, Dr. Wayne Litaker works with a prototype that connects a smartphone to a microscope. In the top left image, Litaker pinches the image to zoom in on the water sample under the microscope. The top right image shows a close up of K. brevis in the water sample.

Currently, there are several reporting systems to alert the public about red tides in the Gulf of Mexico, and each has its own limitations.

"Our forecast abilities have come a long way since the early 2000s," said Dr. Richard Stumpf, Oceanographer with the NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and lead investigator on the project. "When we initially created our forecast models, our goal was to help aquaculture officials know when to close shellfish harvesting areas to protect the public from neurotoxic shellfish poisoning, which is caused by eating seafood containing red tide toxins. But later research showed that the airborne toxins are not only a nuisance, but also a human health risk. So we knew we needed to protect the public from that risk as well. Today, our forecasts provide information about where red tides are and where they're going on a county level. But red tide blooms are patchy and the effects can vary greatly from beach to beach -- even when the beaches are right next door to each other. By bringing in new technology, this project will get us much closer to the goal of a forecast for every beach, every day."

Key to improving the forecast is the development of a smartphone application (app) by Robert Currier, Research Specialist and Product Developer for the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System (GCOOS). The app will allow trained beach observers with special low-cost smart-phone microscopes to collect videos of water samples that can be uploaded to a cloud-based server for automated evaluation. This system will then provide a real-time response on the presence or absence of K. brevis, along with information about whether the quantities are enough to warrant a health concern.

Results and improved forecasts will be available to government and research institutions focused on public health and natural resources, with the ultimate goal of enhancing public information through NOAA's HAB-OFS and Mote's Beach Conditions Reporting System.