Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department

Marine Science

Major Professor

Frank E. Müller-Karger, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Mya Breitbart, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Mark E. Luther, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Ricardo Izurieta, Dr.PH

Committee Member

James R. Mihelcic, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Dragan A. Savić, Ph.D.


Aedes aegypti, beach water quality, fecal indicator bacteria, machine learning, ocean color, public health, artificial neural networks


Climatic variations, together with large-scale environmental forces and human development affect the quality of coastal recreational waters, creating potential risks to human health. These environmental forces, including increased temperature and precipitation, often promote specific vector-borne diseases in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Human activities affect water quality through discharges from urban areas, including nutrient and other pollutants derived from wastewater systems. Both water quality of recreational beaches and vector-borne diseases can be better managed by understanding their relationship with local environmental forces.

I evaluated how changes in vector-borne diseases and poor recreational water quality were related to specific environmental factors through the application of satellite-derived observations, field observations, and public health records. Variability in dengue fever incidence rates in coastal towns of the Yucatan Peninsula (Mexico) was evaluated with respect to environmental factors in Chapter Two. Correlations between fecal indicator bacteria concentrations (i.e., culturable enterococci) at Escambron Beach (San Juan, Puerto Rico, USA) and regional environmental factors are discussed in Chapter Three. Predictions of dengue fever occurrences in the Yucatan Peninsula were tested using a nonlinear approach (i.e., Artificial Neural Networks) and are presented in Chapter Four. The Artificial Neural Network (ANN) model was also used to predict culturable enterococci concentration exceeding safe recreational water quality standards in Escambron Beach and results are presented in Chapter Five. Environmental factors assessed to understand their influence on dengue fever occurrences and culturable enterococci concentrations included precipitation, mean sea level (MSL), air temperatures (e.g., maximum, minimum, and average), humidity, and satellite-derived sea surface temperature (SST), dew point, direct normal irradiance (DNI), and turbidity. These factors were combined with demographic data (e.g., population size) and compared with dengue fever incidence rates and culturable enterococci concentration using linear and nonlinear statistical approaches.

Dengue incidence rates in Yucatan (Mexico) generally increased in July/August and decreased during November/December. A linear regression model showed that previous dengue incidence rates explained 89% of dengue fever variability (p < 0.05). Dengue incidence two weeks prior (previous incidence) influences future outbreaks by allowing the virus to continue propagating. Yet dengue incidence was best explained by precipitation, minimum air temperature, humidity, and SST (p < 0.05). Dengue incidence variability was best explained by SST and minimum air temperature in our study region (r = 0.50 and 0.48, respectively). Increases in SST preceded increased dengue incidence rate by eight weeks. Dengue incidence time series were positively correlated to SST and minimum air temperature anomalies. This is related to the virus and mosquito behavior. Including oceanographic variables among environmental factors in the model improved modelling skill of dengue fever in Mexico.

Chapter Three shows that precipitation, MSL, DNI, SST, and turbidity explained some of the enterococci variation in Escambron Beach surface waters (AIC = 26.76; r = 0.20). Variation in these parameters preceded increased culturable enterococci concentrations, with lags spanning from 24 h up to 11 days. The highest influence on culturable enterococci was precipitation between 480 mm–900 mm. Rainy events often result in overflows of sewage systems and other non-point sources near Escambron Beach in Puerto Rico. A significant decrease in culturable enterococci concentrations was observed during increased irradiance (r = -0.24). This may be due to bacterial inactivation. Increased culturable enterococci concentrations were significantly associated with higher turbidity daily anomalies (r = 0.25), in part because bacteria were protected from light inactivation. Increased culturable enterococci concentrations were related to warmer SST anomalies (r = 0.12); this is likely due to increased bacterial activity and reproduction. Higher culturable enterococci concentrations were also significantly correlated to medium to high values of dew point daily anomalies (r = 0.19). A significant decrease in culturable enterococci during higher daily MSL anomalies (r = -0.19) is possibly due to dilution of bacteria in beach waters, whereas during lower MSL anomalies the back-washing promotes increased bacteria concentrations through mixing from sediments. These environmental variables improve our understanding of the ecology of these bacteria over time. The predictive capability increases by including more than one environmental variable.

Chapter Four explains a predictive model of dengue fever occurrences in San Juan, Puerto Rico (1994–2012), and Yucatan (2007–2012). The model was modified to predict dengue fever outbreak occurrences for two population segments: population at risk of infection (i.e., < 24 years old) and vulnerable population (i.e., < 5 years old and > 65 years old). There were a total of four predictive models, two sets for each location using the specified population segments. Model predictions showed previous dengue cases, minimum air temperature, date, and population size as the factors with the most influence to predict dengue fever outbreak occurrences in Mexico. Previous dengue cases, maximum air temperature, date, and population size were the most influential factors for San Juan, Puerto Rico. The models showed an accuracy around 50% and a predictive capability of 70%. These environmental and demographic variables are important primary predictors for dengue fever outbreaks in Puerto Rico and Mexico.

Chapter Five shows the application of the ANNs model to predict culturable enterococci exceedance based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) Recreational Water Quality Criteria (RWQC) at Escambron Beach, San Juan, Puerto Rico. The model identified DNI, turbidity, 48 h cumulative precipitation, MSL, and SST as the most influential factors to predict enterococci concentration exceedance, based on the U.S. EPA RWQC at Escambron Beach from 2005–2014. The model showed an accuracy of 76%, with a predictive capability greater than 60%, which is higher than linear models. Results showed the applicability of remote sensing data and ANNs to predict recreational water quality and help improve early warning system and public health.

This work helps to better understand complex relationships between climatic variations and public health issues in tropical coastal areas and provides information that can be used by public health practitioners.