- Pacific Sea Nettles, like these at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, are browner than their Atlantic cousins, which are translucent, horrible sacks of seawater that cause nothing but misery. (Omegacentrix)
A ghostly army of soft-boiled-egg-shaped creatures advances upon D.C. from the east. It floats through the briny fluids of the Chesapeake Bay, chomping plankton and fish eggs with orifices that serve as both mouth and anus. Their tentacles are lined with venomous barbs that penetrate any nearby human flesh, eliciting curses and making people urinate on each other.
That's right: It's the 2011 debut of the Sea Nettles, the most annoying thing about swimming at local beaches. Put together, the Chesapeake has more jelly in it than all the Smucker's factories in the world: Moon jellies, their discus-shaped bodies stamped with pink four-leaf clovers, drift through the waters like an explosion of white blood cells. Savage Lion’s Mane jellies unleash stings as harsh as the crack of a whip. At night, waves of cold fire rage through the water – a visual expression of comb jellies' peturbation over being jostled.
But no jelly-bodied critter is more prevalent than Chrysaora quinquecirrha, the wretched Sea Nettle.
For whatever reason, although the jellies are found from the Caribbean to the Gulf of Mexico and all along the East Coast, they chose the Bay to be their stronghold. The population there reaches a concentration unmatched anywhere else. And they aren't likely to be pushed out anytime soon. The species is prodigiously fertile, able to squirt out thousands of larvae daily. That equals a lot of jellies and a lot of P.O.'ed swimmers.
The Sea Nettle season spans roughly from June until September, meaning they're out there right now, bobbing up and down like floating Tazers. But must everybody get stung this year? Is there not a way to defeat this detestable horde that hides beneath the waves?
One heroic group of scientists is working on solving that crucial question. Meet Christopher Brown, oceanographer at NOAA’s satellite climate studies branch in College Park, Md., and a man obsessed with ripping off the mask of the ocean surface. For the past several years, Brown and his cohorts have been working on a way to locate these biological naval mines. He thinks he's getting close. The key is getting inside the Sea Nettles' brains – well, “nerve nets,” anyway.
“We know that they like the water kind of warm and at medium salinity,” says Brown. “If we can get an idea of where those locations in the Bay are, we should be able to predict where the jellyfish in the Bay are.”
To make a jelly forecast, Brown feeds the regional temperatures and water salinities into a hydrodynamic model that was partly developed by Rutgers. He adds a special data sauce of water levels at the mouth of the Bay and conditions in the Potomac, James and Susquehanna rivers. Then the oceanographer pushes the “Go” button, and creates a nearly real-time model showing where the jellyfish are likely to be that day.
Brown stresses that the model is still in the experimental stage – meaning, don't leave angry messages on his voicemail if you get zapped in a low-probability area. Next month, he plans to install three webcams around the Bay, “like traffic cams on 95,” which will help refine the model's accuracy. Brown also hopes that this technology will someday be useful in monitoring harmful algae blooms that are sucking the life out of vast patches of the Chesapeake.
You can play with the model here. (Note: If the map says “May 25,” the researchers know about the glitch and are working to get it fixed. Keep on checking throughout the week.)