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USF scientists lead a grant to better forecast sargassum blooms for coastal communities

A massive sargassum bloom inundated coastlines in Florida and the Caribbean earlier this year. Now, the University of South Florida is leading a $3.2 million grant to bridge a gap in tracking the algae from the open ocean to land.

Coastlines in Florida and the Caribbean were saturated with a harmful algal bloom earlier this year.

The brown, moss-like algae is called sargassum. It's been around for hundreds of years in the North Atlantic.

But the 5,000-mile-long, 13-ton algal bloom from the western portion of Africa to the Gulf of Mexico was absent prior to 2011, according to oceanographer Brian Barnes.

Since then, scientists have been more closely studying what is now called the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt because of its massive size.

Weather satellites allowed them to follow the blooms in the open ocean. But as the algae approached a shoreline, scientists lost tracking capabilities.

Barnes is with the University of South Florida College of Marine Science, which is leading a five-year, $3.2 million grant to develop a forecasting system to help change that.

Barnes said the grant will help "bridge that gap" between tracking the sargassum in the open ocean and land. Scientists will be able to pinpoint coastal communities that will be impacted by the algae.

"We can say this particular patch is going to be a factor affecting this particular beach within a couple of days, rather than just saying, 'there's a ton of sargassum out there and it's impacting these regions,'" he said.

The grant gives scientists the ability to use higher-resolution sensors to narrow the scale of tracking the algae from kilometers to meters. When a satellite passes, they will collect the data, and then confirm it with boats and drone footage.