Featured News

Red Tide Respiratory Forecast Team Mobilizes in Pinellas County

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Posted: June 21, 2021
Category: Featured News

Community scientists and partners continue to monitor the ongoing Karenia brevis bloom along Florida's west coast. While the intensity of the bloom has recently subsided near Naples and Sanibel Island, higher levels of K. brevis — the organism that causes Florida red tides — and bloom conditions are now being recorded in Pinellas County in areas from St. Pete Beach to Clearwater, meaning that volunteers have been mobilized in those areas to regularly gather water samples that allow for the measurement of red tide concentrations.

This data is used to create the Red Tide Respiratory Forecast, which allows residents, tourists, and businesses along the beaches to know whether impacts from red tide are expected to occur where they are and what the level of impact is expected to be.

Beaches only a few miles apart may experience different levels of respiratory impact due to factors such as wind speed and direction. While the location and intensity of bloom conditions vary from day to day — and even hour to hour — the Red Tide Respiratory Forecast provides information on potential respiratory irritation impacts on specific beaches throughout the day.

K. brevis can cause minor respiratory irritation — coughing, sneezing, teary eyes and an itchy throat — for some people but others can experience more serious impacts. People with chronic lung problems like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can have more severe reactions when they breathe in airborne red tide toxins — even ending up in the emergency room. Health officials advise that these people avoid areas experiencing red tide altogether, take all medications as prescribed and have access to rescue inhalers. People with chronic lung disease should leave the beach if they begin experiencing respiratory problems, even if red tide is at very low or low concentrations.

The Forecast was initially developed and tested in Pinellas County in 2018, then expanded to Lee County and beyond. Today, it includes more than 20 Gulf Coast beaches and is hosted by the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System (GCOOS) at habforecast.gcoos.org. (The number of beaches participating on a daily basis varies depending on red tide conditions.)

The Forecast was initially developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Ocean Service in partnership with GCOOS, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission-Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWC-FWRI) and Pinellas County Environmental Management. The forecast was developed through funding from the NASA Health and Air Quality Program. Additional funding has been provided by NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) through the multi-year “Monitoring and Event Response for Harmful Algal Bloom (MERHAB)” program as part of a nationwide effort to improve monitoring of and response to harmful algal blooms (HABs) along U.S. coasts and the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS). It is hosted by GCOOS.

Volunteers Help Make Forecast Possible

Community scientists, partners and volunteers make the Red Tide Respiratory Forecast possible through their consistent monitoring, which ensures that dozens of beaches along Florida's west coast are monitored each day when bloom conditions are present in order to help the public stay safe and enjoy the beaches during red tides. These volunteers are organized by GCOOS.

The forecast team gathering samples is made up of more than 40 trained volunteers, including water quality and marine science professionals from state and county governments, nonprofit research and conservation organizations and educators. The team also includes community science volunteers — high school students, professionals and retirees — with an interest in coastal conservation and stewardship.

GCOOS will need additional volunteers for the team as we increase monitoring to additional beaches in coming months. Email Coordinator Grant Craig grant.craig@gcoos.org if you're interested in learning more about the program.

HABscope Critical to the Forecast Development

Key to creating the Red Tide Respiratory Forecast is a tool called HABscope — a low cost, classroom-grade, portable microscope that has been outfitted with a special adaptor designed by the research team’s engineer and printed on a 3D printer. The adapter is used to mount an Apple iPOD touch to the eyepiece of the microscope. A portable power pack provides the power to light the microscope.

Then, a citizen science volunteer collects a water sample, places it under the microscope and uses the computer to take a video. That’s where deep learning came into play.

GCOOS Research Specialist and Product Developer Robert Currier used open-source machine-learning software (TensorFlow) to build a model that would help the computer automatically identify Karenia brevis cells in the water sample as well as the number of cells present — the concentration of cells. The automated process also reports its findings to researchers making red tide forecast models and can be shared with the public for more accurate reports about whether red tide is on a local beach and whether the concentrations are high enough to warrant a public health concern.

In all, it took some 58,819 images of K. brevis cells to develop the model and “teach” the computer to recognize red tide, Currier said.

“Determining cell concentrations previously required a water sample to be transported to a lab where a trained technician would review a slide to determine whether it contained K. brevis cells and counted each individual cell,” Currier said. "That process took upwards of 15 minutes or longer. Now, we can automate the process with a high-degree of accuracy and have a cell count back instantaneously.”

The tool is also cost-effective. Mobile phone-based microscope systems are available commercially or through custom order but costs range from $1,000 to $3,000. The cost for HABscope? About $400.

HABscope 2.0 is now in the works. The update will replace the iPod Touch with a Raspberry Pi computer, which will increase its programmability and make it even easier for volunteers to use.

The first version of the HABscope used an iPod Touch.

HABscope 2.0 uses a Raspberry Pi computer.

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