NASA provides $100,000 funding for Texas A&M University at Galveston marine sciences project

For the past several years beachgoers along the upper Texas coast have found their beautiful sandy beaches cluttered with ugly, stinky seaweed.  The good news is that Texas A&M University at Galveston researchers who study our beaches and shores are getting help from those who study space.

Dr. Samuel Brody, director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores, announced today that Texas A&M at Galveston just received a one-year, $100,000 grant from NASA to address seaweed problems plaguing the Texas coast.

Not only does seaweed, known as Sargassum, blight Texas beaches with decaying material, but it also may cause loss of revenue for coastal communities depending on tourism for their local economies. Coastal tourism, a $7 billion industry, and commercial fishing, a $1.9 billion business, demand clean beaches and a healthy gulf to thrive, according to the Texas General Land Office Web site http://www.glo.texas.gov/adopt-a-beach/about.html.

Sargassum, periodically and unpredictably blankets any of the 367 miles of Texas coastline. Born in the Sargasso Sea, the seaweed follows a route over thousands of miles, from the mid-Atlantic to Texas beaches, creating a decaying carpet and sending tourists, beachcombers, surfers, swimmers and fishers packing.

To address this problem, marine scientists Tom Linton and Robert Webster have been working to predict Sargassum landings on Texas beaches. Their project, titled “Forecasting Sargassum Drift in the Gulf of Mexico,” which was also funded by NASA, started three years ago.

Captain Webster has been issuing “Early Warning Forecasts” of Sargassum landings; based on a predictive model he and a Texas A&M research team developed by gathering and analyzing satellite data about Sargassum. With this information, they alert beach managers in towns and municipalities on the Texas coast from Beaumont to Brownsville to mobilize crews and equipment in advance for cleanup of the seaweed.

“Our model, SEAS, short for Sargassum Early Warning System, has given us a very accurate predictive capability,” Webster said. “We can now predict up to 16 days in advance, when Sargassum will make landfall.”  Webster says one of the team’s goals is to predict up to six months in advance.

“We hope to expand the predictive capability to six months so managers can have cost budgeted through the regular annual budgeting process instead of, possibly, having to seek emergency funding to conduct cleanup operations,” Linton said.

Beyond helping economies of coastal communities, the SEAS team is also educating the next generation.  “We’re going into Houston-area high schools and engaging students to become part of the scientific process,” Webster said. “We teach them how to retrieve satellite data and learn about technology required to look at the movement of biological processes.

NASA Project Manager Ted Mason said funding consideration was sparked by a presentation at a regional workshop.  “It was a pivotal moment, when Robert (Webster) gave the Sargassum presentation at the 2013 Gulf Initiative Workshop in New Orleans,” he said. “We were impressed by the (SEAS) team’s success rate.  This project has the capacity to spur the next generation to find scientific breakthroughs,” Mason said. “It combines applied science with a great mentor/mentee relationship.”

“This is just the type of scientific based practical output research the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores was formed to promote and hopes to foster,” said Brody. “This is, I hope, just the beginning.”      

Media Contact: Cathy Cashio Bertrand at (409) 740-4830 or cashioc@tamug.edu