Ask Asta: What is Sea Foam?
In this weekly series, Asta answers your most unusual questions about the ocean.
Got a good question? Ask Asta yourself! Email her at asta@Literasea.ca!
Have you ever taken a bubble bath?
Bubble baths are my favorite way to relax. When I know my water is the right temperature and I've got enough water to warm up the tub, I pour soap into the stream of water from the tap. Seconds later, I have a bounty of bubbly foam to relax in!
Is this the same kind of foam you see at the beach sometimes?
It is similar, but the foam you see at the beach didn't come from soap and water running from a tap!
In fact, tap or 'fresh' water and ocean water are very different. If you were to look at sea water under a microscope, you would see that every drop of seawater contains plenty of dissolved organic material, like decaying plants and animals, microplankton, salts, fats and proteins.
These materials usually float in the water invisibly, and decrease the surface tension of the water, similar to the way soap does in the tub.
In particularly rough weather, when the wind, waves and currents agitate sea water, tiny bubbles that form together in large quantities. These bubbles stick to each other due to their own surface tension, and this creates what we know as sea foam.
Sea Foam, also known as Spume (my absolute FAVORITE new word!) is a natural phenomenon, and can be formed anywhere in the world. Usually, you will observe just a little foam, right at the water line between the ocean and the beach. However, Australia has had several incidences in which the entire beach, and even nearby beach towns, have been completely covered in sea foam!
The amount of foam created is dependent on the level of wind, chop, and surfactant material in the sea water at the time. Sometimes, large sea foam events are linked to naturally occurring ocean processes, like phytoplankton blooms.
Is Sea Foam Dangerous?
Just like in the bathtub, sea foam usually disappears after several hours or days. Most of the time, touching or interacting with sea foam is harmless to humans.
However, not all sea foam is good sea foam. Sometimes, sea foam forms after contaminants have entered the marine environment. When crude oil, motor oil, detergents, or sewage build up in the marine environment, a smelly brown "chocolate mousse"-like sea foam can develop, and can be very persistent. You definitely would not want to bathe in that stuff!
Sea foam can also be created after outbreaks of harmful algal blooms (from species such as dinoflaggellates or cyanobacteria) people to have respiratory (breathing) problems and skin irritation. A good rule of thumb is to enjoy the beauty of sea foam from afar if it's any color other than white!
Where have you seen Sea Foam?
Let us know where and when you've encountered sea foam, and what you think caused it! If you have a chance, you can even take a sample and look at it under a microscope.
Leave your comments below!
Atkins, J. 24/05/2009,"Warnings on sea foam on beaches" 702 ABC Sydney Article. Retrieved April 30, 2014. http://blogs.abc.net.au/nsw/2009/05/warnings-on-sea.html?site=sydney&program=north_coast_emergency
Associated Press. "Raw: Sea Foam Blankets Australia Beach Town". Youtube Video. Retreived April 30, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-dvEmroCHXs
Elert. E. 11/26.2012. "FYI: What is Sea Foam? Where does it come from?" Popular Science Article.http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2012-11/fyi-what-causes-sea-foam-and-it-dangerous
Retrieved April 30, 2014.
Innovateus Article. 2014. "What is Sea Foam?" Retrieved April 30, 2014. http://www.innovateus.net/science/what-sea-foam
NOAA. January 29, 2013. "What is Sea Foam?"Retreived April 30, 2014. http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/seafoam.html
Life's Little Mysteries Staff. March 9, 2012. "How does Sea Foam form?". LiveScience Article. Retrieved April 30, 2014.http://www.livescience.com/33760-sea-foam-form.html
Sharda. November 30, 2011. "What is Sea Foam and How is it Created?" Marine Insight Article. Retrieved April 30, 2014. http://www.marineinsight.com/marine/environment/what-is-sea-foam-and-how-it-is-formed/
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