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Innovative Red Tide bad air forecast tool working well, but info can be hard to find

Workers contracted by Pinellas County cleaned up dead fish last month on Madeira Beach as a southwest wind brought daed fish and the smell of red tide to the beach. The water looked red. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Nov. 13, 2018

An experimental program to offer beachgoers a forecast of how bad the air will be from Red Tide algae toxins has been up and running in Pinellas County for a month now.

Known as the Experimental Red Tide Respiratory Tool, the program seems to be working well so far, according to the county's top environmental official.

The tool "predicts risk levels for respiratory irritation from Red Tide along Pinellas County beaches," the county's web site says. "It is available Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Click on your favorite beach and you will see a forecast every 3 hours."

However, some users are still having problems with it.

The most serious problem: locating the program, which is available from a link on the county's web site.

"When people find it, they love it," Kelli Hammer Levy, Pinellas County's environmental management director, said Monday.

That means Pinellas and its federal partner, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, need to do a better job of letting beachgoers know that the service exists, she said.

The other problem is a little more difficult to deal with.

Each beach has a color-coded dot on it to show the strength of Red Tide in that area. Red is for "high," orange is for "moderate," yellow is for "low" and blue is for "very low." A gray dot means there's no data for that location.

But for some reason, a lot of people "don't realize they need to click (the dot) to read the forecast," Levy said.

Want to check out the tool? Try it here.

For instance, someone clicking on the dot for John's Pass on Monday afternoon would see the evening forecast listed as "moderate" but the forecast for Tuesday morning showing "high" from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., then slipping back down to "moderate" again in the late afternoon.

The listings of high, moderate and so forth are not intended to show the intensity of Red Tide's algae bloom, but rather the risk of encountering Red Tide's characteristic throat and breathing irritations. It combines samplings of the algae bloom's cell counts with forecasts for the wind produced by the National Weather Service.

Most of the attention paid to Red Tide focuses on the sizeable death toll it produces as it wipes out fish, manatees and dolphins and also sickens sea birds. But its natural toxins also attack humans' ability to breathe. When the bloom's toxins get picked up by breezes blowing toward land, anyone who inhales them is likely to wind up coughing, sneezing and wheezing. For people who already suffer from respiratory problems, the toxins can produce more severe symptoms.

However, there's no way of knowing in advance which beaches have bad air. People have to show up at a beach to find out if they can breathe freely.

This experimental tool created by the local and federal partnership is designed to fill that need. It uses data collected by satellites to plot the location of Red Tide blooms, then combines that with National Weather Service forecasts for wind speed and direction.

The goal is "to produce near real-time exposure levels" for Red Tide's airborne toxins, Barb Kirkpatrick, a harmful algae bloom expert, said last month in unveiling the tool. Kirkpatrick is executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System Regional Association, which works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Their goal, Kirkpatrick said, is to produce predictions for "every beach, every day." If the Pinellas County program is successful, she said, they hope to expand it to other coastal counties as well.

The current Red Tide bloom was first detected off the Southwest Florida coast a year ago. It intensified over the summer and crept northward until it covered more than 100 miles of the coast. Eventually it touched beaches in the Panhandle and on the state's Atlantic coast as well.

It reached Pinellas County in early September, dumping hundreds of tons of dead fish on the beaches and in nearby waterways, and driving tourists away from the local hotels. Scientists have called it the worst bloom in a decade.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes

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