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Red Tide Respiratory Forecast Expands to Sanibel

As red tide conditions persist along the Southwest Florida coast between Venice south to Marco Island, residents and visitors of some Lee County beaches have a new tool to help avoid respiratory ailments caused by exposure to air-borne red tide toxins.

It’s an expansion of the Red Tide Respiratory Forecast launched in 2018 in Pinellas County that combines a microscope, a 3D printed adaptor, an iPod Touch and artificial intelligence software to provide site-specific real-time information to the public.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission updates its red tide reporting data every Friday.  While those reports contain important information on concentrations of red tide throughout the state, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oceanographer Richard Stumpf, Ph.D., said, the data isn’t all that helpful for anyone planning a trip to the beach on any given day.

“What we have right now is either the cell counts the states collect, which are typically once a week and they have to go back to a central location and get counted which can take a day, two days, three days,” said Stumpf.  “So you don’t find out until, say Wednesday, whether there was a problem on Monday, which doesn’t help you a lot.”

Knowing when and where respiratory irritation from red tide could occur is vital, particularly for those with asthma or other chronic lung problems.

“If someone who has asthma, they run the risk of having ending up with a severe attack,” said Stumpf.  “They may end up in the emergency room so that’s the biggest concern and emergency room visits have gone up during these events.” 

That’s what motivated Stumpf to come with the concept for the HABscope.  It combines a low-cost microscope – the kind you’d typically find in a classroom laboratory – with a special 3D printed adaptor that allows users to mount an Apple iPod touch to the microscope and then record video of water sample slides.

“A 30 second video is collected here.  It’s uploaded to a computer, gets counted within 15 minutes of a sample taken,” said Stumpf.  “And as long as you have a hot spot and a cell phone connection, this could all be done at the beach.”

Similar to how artificial intelligence can be used for facial recognition, software designed by researchers with the non-profit Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System can analyze videos of the water sample slides and specifically identify cells of Karenia brevis, which is the organism responsible for red tide.  The software can then determine whether concentrations of Karenia brevis are high enough to trigger respiratory problems in people.

The ability to analyze water samples in almost real-time means the online Red Tide Respiratory Forecast can be updated several times a day.  New forecasts are typically available on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays.  Executive Director of the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System, Barbara Kirkpatrick, Ph.D. calls the HABscopes a “game changer.”

“We think we have about 25 of them out in total from Pinellas County all the way down to Sanibel here,” said Kirkpatrick.  “It’s a little bit of a learning curve, so various skill and variability in how often they’re sampling for us, but we’re getting more information that we certainly could from traditional methods.”

When Kirkpatrick worked as a senior scientist and program manager at Mote Marine Laboratory, she co-lead the first major multi-institution study of Florida’s red tide on human health.

“We studied 100 people for over ten years and after a one-hour walk on the beach during red tide they had decreased pulmonary function or long function, and increased symptoms and those effects lasted for three to five days after that exposure,” said Kirkpatrick.  “So folks out there with asthma or any other chronic lung disease, you need to be really careful.  The other concern we do have is even for people who are healthy, what (do) extended blooms like last years’, where if you were living on a barrier island, potentially you were exposed for about a year and we don’t have any good science on that and work needs to be done in that area.”

The Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation and the Sanibel Sea School are now providing red tide respiratory forecast data for three sites on the island: Bowman’s, Lighthouse and Tarpon beaches.  SCCF research scientist Rick Bartleson, Ph.D., has been monitoring red tide since 2006.  He said the user-friendly HABscopes are generating new interest among volunteers.

“Now we have new volunteers to work with this program because they’re interested in the health aspect of red tide,” said Bartleson.  “They don’t need to identify the Karenia.  The cells are identified by the software as they’re swimming. So it is pretty simple.  All they have to do is get the three drops onto the slide, and get it focused right and then it’s pretty easy to do after a couple tries.”

NOAA Oceanographer Stumpf said being able to update the forecast multiple times a day is helpful because when a red tide is present, respiratory conditions can change within a matter of hours.
“The biggest one for in the summer is the sea breeze.  So in the morning the wind’s usually blowing off the land into the water,” said Stumpf.

“So you often are better in the morning.  Sometimes in the afternoon it might get worse, but you still have weather patterns coming through and sometimes the wind’s blowing onshore all day and other times the wind’s blowing offshore all day.”

The Red Tide Respiratory Forecast was initially funded by a grant from NASA’s Applied Science Program through the Health and Air Quality Program, but Kirkpatrick said maintaining and expanding it further will require finding a sustained operational funding source.  She may be able to help with that as a member of the Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force, revived this year by Governor Ron DeSantis.

“One of the things the task force will be doing will be looking at ‘Where are the gaps? What is needed to help communities deal better when we have these blooms?’” said Kirkpatrick.  “We won’t be doing the work, but we’ll be making recommendations of what else needs to be done.”

Beachgoers can access the newly expanded Red Tide Respiratory Forecast online at habscope.gcoos.org/forecast.

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