MIAMI -- Like most tourists coming to a South Florida beach for a quarantine break, the Mlynek family had a picture-perfect scene in mind when they arrived from Oklahoma this week: turquoise waters glistening in the sun, gently swaying palm trees and shining stretches of white sand.
What they found in Hollywood instead were smelly, messy mounds of seaweed coating the coastline.
Seaweed is once again invading Southeast Florida beaches as mats of the massive macroalgae swirling around in the Atlantic make their annual appearance. But this year is shaping up to be a really bad one: a combination of ocean currents and seasonal southeasterly winds is moving the nasty stuff over from the eastern Caribbean, fouling vast expanses of sand and turning nearshore waters into a slimy soup.
"It's a bit disappointing, definitely not what we expected," said Mike Mlynek, a Red Cross executive who booked a vacation at the Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort hoping to swim in a pristine beach for a week.
Seaweed, or sargassum, is a natural occurrence, regularly washing up on beaches around the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. But it has become a major headache over the past few years, blanketing popular tourist destinations like Cancun, where the Mexican Navy is using ships in cleanup operations, and Barbados, where the Prime Minister said sargassum is as big a threat to the local economy as a hurricane.
So far it hasn't been as bad as the sargassum attack of 2018, when a record-breaking crop blanketed beaches from Key Biscayne to Jacksonville. But it's worse than scientists thought it would be when they calculated predictions earlier this year, said Chuanmin Hu, professor of optical oceanography at the University of South Florida. His lab tracks seaweed movements based on NASA and NOAA satellite images.
"Several months ago we predicted this would be a bad year, but not as bad as 2018; We've already seen a whole lot of sargassum reaching our shores faster than we expected," Hu said. "At this point it's looking like things are actually worse than our original estimates."
The total amount of sargassum in the Atlantic is bigger than what satellites registered last year, which is not very encouraging, he added. Over the next two weeks Florida's east coast will likely see another wave of heavy blooms covering beaches.
In June, vast mats of sargassum continued to increase across the central Atlantic, creating what scientists have dubbed the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt. Over the past few years, this 5,500-mile seaweed blanket stretching from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico has become a permanent occurrence.
In June 2018, the belt was at its thickest, containing more than 20 million metric tons of seaweed -- heavier than 200 fully-loaded aircraft carriers. Last month, the total seaweed amount increased to 12.7 million metric tons compared with 8.7 million metric tons in May. In June 2019, sargassum amounts in the Atlantic totalled about 10 million metric tons, Hu's Sargassum Watch System shows.