Here's how Hurricane Michael may first help, then hurt Florida's disastrous red tide bloom

By Kevin Byrne, AccuWeather staff writer
October 09, 2018, 12:32:47 PM EDT

Florida's nearly year-long battle with a harmful toxic algae, known as red tide, has been a costly and smelly headache that has impacted much of the western coast as well as part of the state’s east coast.

From wildlife deaths to public health risks and the financial impacts of lost tourism revenue, the red tide has been a thorn in the side of Floridians for much of the last year.

Now, Florida is facing the growing danger from Hurricane Michael, currently barreling toward the state with potentially catastrophic impacts, including storm surge, flooding rain and damaging winds.

red tide smell

In this Monday Aug. 6, 2018 photo, Alex Kuizon covers his face as he stands near dead fish at a boat ramp in Bradenton Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

With Michael churning towards the state, some are wondering whether it could make the red tide problem better or worse. As it turns out, the storm may help mitigate the risk of the toxic algae. For a time, anyway.

Dr. Aileen Marty, the director of the Health Travel Medicine Program at Florida International University, said the storm’s winds could actually help break up the ride tide and move it off the coast.

Tropical storms or hurricane tend to disperse the organisms and decrease the risk of the red tide, according to Marty.

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“Of course, more organisms will shatter, because they’re very fragile anyway, and release toxins, so there might be a temporary, very brief increase in concentration, but it soon [tends] to dissipate. That’s usually the impact,” she said.

The storm’s powerful winds could help blow the tide away from shore. With Michael still targeting the Florida Panhandle, any potential for the bloom to be broken up will be seen along the state’s west coast, where the red tide has been worse, but it may not affect what’s happening on the east coast, where the state's annual King Tide recently raised concerns.

The bloom's largest area extends about 145 miles from areas north of Tampa to as far south as Naples in Collier County.

The red tide is made up of Karenia brevis, an organism endemic to the Gulf of Mexico. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), current observations in northwestern Florida show “very low to low concentrations in or offshore of Okaloosa County, medium concentrations offshore of Walton County, low to medium concentrations in Bay County, very low to low concentrations in Gulf County, and background to low concentrations in or offshore of Pasco County.”

A case of respiratory irritation was reported this past week in Okalossa County, the FWC stated.

Marty emphasized that the storm passing through will not totally remove the risk for red tide going forward, but it could dissipate the problem for the rest of the year for western coastal areas.

“More likely than not, the hurricane is going to reduce the problem in the west coast, where it’s worse, for now,” Marty said, adding that environmental conditions, such as warm waters, could allow the algae to return in the future once Michael is gone.

However, one problem the hurricane may create is the flooding which can lead to runoff from agricultural areas, where chemicals such as fertilizers are used. If those chemicals reached the red tide, it could exacerbate the issue.

"[Chemicals] provide the nutrients that help the Karenia reproduce. Chemical runoff has been a big issue for years," Marty said.

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