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Florida Researchers Are Studying Metals In The Gulf Of Mexico

A female scientist wearing a blue safety helmet collects water samples on a boat.
Courtesy Chelsea Bonnain Chase
Kristen Buck, chemical oceanographer and associate professor at USF, deploys a "towfish" to collect surface water samples for trace metals in the Gulf of Mexico.

Last summer, scientists with the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and the University of South Florida started a project to find iron, copper, cobalt, cadmium, nickel, manganese, and zinc in the waters along Florida's west coast.

The goal is to find out how much of these trace metals come in and out at different times of the year, and how they affect phytoplankton, like Karenia Brevis, the organism that causes toxic red tide blooms.

Kristen Buck is a chemical oceanographer and associate professor at USF's College of Marine Science.

"As you change the dynamic of what nutrients are available, you get different organisms growing better or worse, and that fuels food webs, and it builds our system,” she said.

For example, a Trichodesmium algae bloom right now in the Gulf of Mexico could be getting fueled by iron-rich Saharan sands.

READ MORE: Algae Bloom Along Florida's West Coast Is Not Red Tide. So What Is It?

Buck said she hopes this study also reveals more about climate change.

“As climate changes, we may expect more arid areas, so drier air, more Saharan dust, for example, perhaps coming out. So there's different magnitudes of sources that can change,” she said.

And as more carbon dioxide gets absorbed into our oceans, that could change the metals and affect the blooms, too.

Buck said not much is known about these metals in the Gulf compared to the other elements because they’re difficult to study.

There’s also been a new hurdle: coronavirus. They were able to take samples back in September and November but the pandemic has stifled their progress. Buck is hoping to get back out on the water with her team soon.

Since 2012, I’ve been a voice on public radio stations across Florida - in Miami, Fort Myers, and now Tampa.
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