What is that called again? It has various names: ocean foam, beach foam and, sometimes, spume if you want to be scientific. However, most people know it as sea foam. It is a natural phenomenon and almost recognized by anyone who has visited a beach. Some people don’t know why it occurs or how it is formed. The answer may surprise you. Some people might think that it has to do with the wind; however, that is only half of the equation. The other half has something to do with what the seawater is made of and how the ocean breaks down organic matter.

Color is the key. There are at least two different types of sea foam and it indicates whether the foam is harmless or harmful. One type is white sea foam, which is the most common type that people see. The other type is either red or brown. You can think of the white as being the good guy of sea foam and the red or brown as the bad guy.

White sea foam occurs naturally, and most of the time, is harmless to humans and other life forms. It is an indicator of a healthy, productive ecosystem. This type of sea foam occurs when large amounts of organic matter begin to break down and dissolve in the sea water.

Due to the ocean constantly moving and creating waves, the organic matter breaks down into its finest form and once it becomes this form it acts as a foaming agent. When this combines with the churning motion of the waves air gets trapped thus forming bubbles. You can think of this as a washing machine. Imagine the churning of the waves as the spinning or twisting movement caused by the agitator in the middle of the washing machine and the organic matter as the laundry detergent. When you combine these two together bubbles form and stick together to create foam. Because the foam is very light in weight it floats to the top of the waves. It is then brought to shore thanks to the tide and strong winds. If the winds are strong enough then it has the potential to blow onto the shoreline and land close to the shore.

Red or brown sea foam is a different story. This type can be harmful to humans and other life forms such as sea birds. This occurs after an algal bloom or red tide. The foam is formed due the decay of tiny organisms called phytoplankton, which produce harmful algal toxins. When the foam bubbles pop, these toxins can become airborne and can cause eye irritation and respiratory problems in humans.

The foam also has the potential to harm other life forms like birds. If birds become trapped in the foam, the foam can remove their feathers’ waterproofing properties. This makes it difficult for the birds to fly and also puts them at risk of developing hypothermia, which can be deadly.

In conclusion, sea foam is typically harmless to humans and other life forms when it’s in its white form and shows that the ecosystem within the ocean is healthy and productive. However, in its brown or red form, it can be very dangerous and thus precautions must be taken for health concerns.

Taylor Bennett graduated from Old Dominion University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology concentrating in Marine Biology, and performs shorebird surveys along the upper Texas Coast. The GCBO is a non-profit organization dedicated to saving the birds and their habitats along the entire Gulf Coast, and beyond into their Central and South America wintering grounds.

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