A Tsunami of Goopy Foam Washes Into a French Town

Storm Imogen’s hurricane-force winds are churning up flying, smelly suds.

Imagine if a convoy of custard trucks overturned and covered a neighborhood with creamy, jiggly goop—that was the scene yesterday in Penmarch, which was inundated with “sea foam” from the powerful Storm Imogen.

Cars and pedestrians slogged through dirty-white suds that looked like the mother of all laundromats had suffered a grievous malfunction. Strong winds—in places the tempest delivered gusts of nearly 100 mph, well above hurricane force—drove clots of foam into the air, where they swarmed like locusts distressingly near mouth level.

The causes of the flying gunk were those winds as well as strong waves, which churned organic matter in the sea—salts, fats, proteins, algae, pollutants, and maybe even detergents—into an unwholesome, reportedly foul-smelling lather. Sea foam isn’t normally a cause for alarm, though on rare occasions it can be noxious. Writes NOAA:

Most sea foam is not harmful to humans and is often an indication of a productive ocean ecosystem. But when large harmful algal blooms decay near shore, there are potential for impacts to human health and the environment. Along Gulf coast beaches during blooms of Karenia brevis, for example, popping sea foam bubbles are one way that algal toxins become airborne. The resulting aerosol can irritate the eyes of beach goers and poses a health risk for those with asthma or other respiratory conditions. Scientists studying the cause of a seabird die-offs off California in 2007 and in the Pacific Northwest in 2009 also found a soap-like foam from a decaying Akashiwo sanguinea algae bloom had removed the waterproofing on feathers, making it harder for birds to fly. This led to the onset of fatal hypothermia in many birds.

The locals seem to have weathered this oceanic assault just fine, however, with no reports of illnesses. The same goes for residents of Croyde in England, who also got a big taste of the foam:

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.