Red Menace


Concentrations of microflora regularly blight beaches, tinting water red, turning shellfish toxic, and sickening swimmers. Although one of the plagues of Exodus may well have been a harmful algal bloom, or “red tide,” scientists still struggle to predict these blooms and plan for their effects. Research oceanographer Steve Morton of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a group of far-flung volunteers hope to change that.

When Morton established the Phytoplankton Monitoring Network in 2001, three students appeared at his office in Charleston, South Carolina, to learn how to sample local waters. Since then, more than 10,000 volunteers have signed up; they go to nearby docks, measure the water’s temperature, drag nets in the water, and examine samples under microscopes. They send their findings to a database that NOAA scientists comb in search of trends related to algae growth. So far, the work has achieved pragmatic ends: this April, volunteers in Port Aransas, Texas, spotted a bloom that resulted in the closing of infected oyster beds.

Meanwhile, volunteer Shawn Gano has helped develop a free iPhone app to assist in identifying phytoplankton, pilot programs are under way in the Great Lakes region, NOAA is considering a similar volunteer network to monitor coral reefs, and the monitoring network will soon begin a partnership with high schools in Mexico.

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Darcy Courteau is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. Her most recent work has appeared in The Atlantic, Oxford American, New Orleans Review, and The Wilson Quarterly.


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