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USF Marine Scientists Deploy Robotic Glider to Investigate Source of Red Tide

Researchers at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science are back onshore following an investigation into whether or not red tide is crawling along the sea floor.

In collaboration with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the team launched a research vessel Friday from Clearwater Beach and traveled 50 miles northwest to an area known to spawn red tide blooms this time of year. They deployed an underwater glider, which is an autonomous robot that collects subsurface data vital to understanding how the ocean works.

The underwater glider is efficient as it has wings and ballast adjustments that allow it to travel while floating and sinking along the way. It uses sensors to measure the likelihood of algae blooms and their location. This is significant as deep-water cells may initiate a new bloom or intensify an existing bloom under certain conditions.

In order to predict where the red tide will move once it forms, scientists must understand how Gulf waters circulate. This is something USF College of Marine Science Distinguished University Professor of Physical Oceanography, Robert Weisberg, PhD, has been studying for decades.

“Water conditions this year have been conducive for a red tide bloom that has added to a red tide lingering from last year,” said Weisberg. “The absence of strong interaction between the Loop Current and the west Florida shelf, nutrients at mid-shelf have been low, allowing red tide to outcompete other faster growing plants. These new red tide cells now appear to be headed toward the shore.”

“Red tide species are always present at low concentration in Gulf waters and we do know what conditions are conducive to development of these devastating blooms,” said Jacqueline Dixon, PhD, Dean of the USF College of Marine Science and professor of geological oceanography. “What we need is more investment in the tools that will allow us to provide earlier warning to coastal communities. Just like we are much better off having more lead time before hurricanes, the work being done at USF and FWC can help provide a better early warning system for the public.”

USF marine scientists hope this glider deployment will help spark support for a long-term sampling effort that applies not just to red tide, but to oil spills and other hazards that impact fisheries and west Florida’s ecological system.

The initial findings from the glider recently deployed are that waters along the bottom are heading toward shore and that these waters do contain elevated chlorophyll levels indicative of microscopic plants. Attempts will be made to sample these near bottom waters to determine if these plants are red tide.

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