In most ways, 2011 was not a remarkable year on St. Martin. There were no major hurricanes. The hills weren’t parched by drought. But one amazing thing did happen, and in some ways it began a new era.
Sargassum was on nobody’s mind in 2011. That is, until it began washing ashore by the ton. It sloshed in the shallows and piled up on beaches. A rusty rainbow—yellow to orange to red to brown—inserted itself on every eastern coastline. The rotten egg smell of rotting sargassum overwhelmed the beach.
At the time, everyone was surprised. Old timers were asked, and the old timers told us they had never seen this before. People wondered where it was coming from and why. Seaside businesses struggled to remove it. Would it ever stop coming?
After a few months, it did stop. But as we know today, it was only a temporary break. In less than a decade, a huge change in nature has become normal. Unlike ground sea or Christmas winds, there’s no local name for the time when sargassum comes, but perhaps some day there will be.
In the years since sargassum first invaded, we’ve learned a bit about it. It doesn’t come from the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic. It seems to come from the tropical Atlantic, where in the past there was almost none. It seems likely that nutrients flowing into the ocean from South American rivers are fertilizing these new sargassum blooms.
If ending the sargassum blooms means ending farming and restoring rainforest in South America, then sargassum will be with us for a while. People will have to learn to deal with it: how to remove it, what to do with it. It is a huge hassle, but perhaps someday also a resource.
We don’t fully understand the impact of sargassum on local nature, but it does not seem good. Rotting sargassum chokes near-shore waters. It uses all the oxygen that fish and other animals depend on. It can ensnare sea turtles and cover the beaches that they need to nest on. The nutrients from sargassum may also fertilize algae that can smother corals and destroy reefs.
In less than a decade, an immense environmental change has already become normal to us. We still aren’t sure what to do about it, but we are starting to work on it. But even if we learn to clean our beaches, there may be unseen harm to the ocean life around our island that we can’t stop.
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