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  • Amy Pilsbury


Updated: May 5, 2021

This month’s blog takes a look at a cutting-edge project from our friends at the University of Nottingham and the UK Space Agency.

Stages of Sargassum on shore (Photo: CONABIO)

Every year, the influx of seaweed on Mexico’s Caribbean coastline causes irreversible damage to local ecosystems, human health issues and has an adverse effect on the tourist industry in the area, not to mention the millions of dollars spent each year on clean-up operations.

Since 2011, scientists from all over the world, as well as local communities, have been working to find solutions to the problematic blooms, looking for opportunities to remove the seaweed and identify alternative uses for it. So far, this includes; fertilisers, biofuels, medicines and even house bricks!

Fertiliser fractions (Photo: Ed Jones)

There is currently limited understanding of how Sargassum beaching events are influenced by changing sea conditions and global warming, but estimating coastal arrivals is becoming increasingly important and has been cited as a priority for the Mexican government.

Early predictions would enable a strong active management plan to be put in place and help to enhance the resilience of Mexico’s tourist industry. Due to the associated problems with coastal zones and the sheer scale of floating seaweed rafts, predicting Sargassum blooms using conventional ground-based methods has proved ineffective.

Dr Betsabe de la Barreda-Bautista and Professor Giles Foody lead the SAtellite SArgassum Monitoring System (SASAMS) funded by the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme (IPP) which uses UK space expertise in satellite technology to tackle real-world problems.

SASAMS brings together a diverse group of experts from the UK (University of Nottingham, Specto Natura and Triple Line) and Mexico (CONABIO, CentroGeo and UNAM) to develop a real-time monitoring system of annual Sargassum blooms and predict their arrival on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. The project is a welcome addition to the fight against problematic Sargassum blooms in the Caribbean.

Photo: Josh Spires

Using satellite Earth Observation technology, the project aims to observe and identify blooms from space and track them across the Atlantic Ocean. Existing data from Planet Inc. who operate daily global satellite imaging (offering 3m special resolution images) can be used alongside cutting-edge cloud processing technologies to provide information about the location of Sargassum rafts. The findings can be used to understand Sargassum beaching events and to deliver a monitoring system, enabling early warnings and support to local land users.

The project will result in the protection of Mexico’s beaches and reinstate the booming tourist industry in the area, whilst also acting as a cornerstone in any onward processing infrastructures which may rely heavily on biomass availability.

PhycoMExUK’s own work relies on the availability of Sargassum throughout the year. A prediction, monitoring and early-warning system is essential to a productive and sustainable biorefinery which is reliant on a supply of seaweed biomass and blooming events.

We are working to turn seaweed into opportunity and create sustainable fertiliser and biofuel products using hydrothermal processing technologies. Reactor conditions can be changed to create higher yields of different fractions and are able to be targeted to meet market demands. Find out more about our work here.

Follow us on twitter at @PhycoMExUK


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