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Smelly, slimy seaweed infestation spotted from space

The European Space Agency is tracking a smelly Sargassum seaweed explosion that's putting a damper on tourism in Mexico.

Seaweed surrounds the island group of Guadeloupe in this satellite image from early July.

Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2019), processed by ESA

Sargassum seaweed isn't inherently bad. The brown algae provides an important habitat for marine animals. But sometimes it gets so out of control that it needs to be monitored from space. 

The European Space Agency shared a Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite view on Tuesday of masses of Sargassum surrounding the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. The image has been processed to highlight vegetation in red. Pink areas in the ocean indicate the presence of the floating seaweed and darker areas likely show Sargassum that's underwater.

This year has been a rough one for tourist towns in Mexico and Florida inundated with Sargassum. It washes up on beaches and rots, emitting a foul smell. 

"The Mexican Space Agency has asked ESA for help using satellite images for sargassum monitoring," tweeted Josef Aschbacher, director of Earth Observation Programs at ESA.

ESA also shared a close-up look at at the coastline near Cancun, Mexico. Sargassum appears in bright pink along the shore. 

Sargassum appears in pink in the waters near Cancun.

Processed by Ocean Virtual Laboratory

A paper published in the journal Science in July suggests the Sargassum seaweed explosion in the Atlantic in recent years has been fueled by deforestation and fertilizer runoff from the Amazon. "Such recurrent blooms may become the new normal," the paper said.

ESA plans to continue tracking Sargassum so communities can better prepare to deal with the mess when it hits their shores. Cleanup is costly, but so is the economic hit from lost tourism.