Connecticut-Sized Dead Zone Found in Gulf of Mexico
Imagine if all of the animals throughout the entire state of Connecticut left or died. This is what happens every year in the Gulf of Mexico. The size of the dead zone varies—sometimes it’s as big as New Jersey or only the size of Rhode Island, but the problem always persists.
Researchers from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium just spent a week measuring dissolved oxygen concentrations off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas to determine how big the dead zone is this year. And they found that it is about 5,800 square miles, or roughly, the size of the state of Connecticut.
This area is called “the dead zone” because dissolved oxygen levels are too low to support life. Animals that can move out of the area, like fish and shrimp, will leave, and animals that can’t, like brittle stars and mussels, will become stressed and eventually die.
The dead zone forms every summer because nutrient-rich water from the Mississippi River basin flows into the Gulf and causes algal blooms. Nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, are helpful when used to fertilize gardens and crops, but like most other things, the best rule for nutrients is moderation. While these nutrients are naturally occurring in the Gulf and all ecosystems, levels that are too high can cause problems.
The Mississippi River basin drains 41 percent of the contiguous U.S. and as water runs off fields, yards and pavement, it collects nutrients. These nutrients are carried to the Gulf where they “fertilize” coastal waters and cause algal blooms. As algae die, they sink to the seafloor where they are decomposed by bacteria, a process that uses oxygen.
During most times of the year, bottom waters and surface waters mix frequently, so oxygen levels are replenished regularly. However, during the summer there is an abundance of warm fresh water in the Gulf due to seasonal warming and freshwater river outflows. This water is less dense than the cold salty water near the bottom of the seafloor.
The densities are different enough that the two layers of water will become separated (think oil and water) and prevent mixing of the oxygen-poor bottom waters with the oxygen-rich surface waters. This is called stratification. When stratification occurs, low-oxygen waters are trapped at the bottom, and as more algae are decomposed, the oxygen levels continue to drop until they get low enough to cause a dead zone.
While the dead zone off the coast of Louisiana is the largest and most recognized example of coastal hypoxia in the Gulf, this problem is a Gulf-wide issue. The Ocean Conservancy has mapped the documented cases of low-oxygen areas in the extensive report, Gulf of Mexico: A Marine and Coastal Atlas.
What is the best way to reduce the size of the dead zone? Reduce the amount of nutrients that reach the Gulf.
The two best ways to do this are:
- Reduce nutrient inputs into coastal and upriver water bodies
- Increase the watershed’s capacity to retain excess nutrients
As consumers of agricultural goods, we can contribute to reducing nutrients by supporting farming practices that promote sustainable, responsible agriculture. For example, one practice called crop rotation can reduce fertilizer application by rotating plants like legumes that add nitrogen to the soil with plants like corn that take it up. And the practice of adding stream buffers to drainage ditches can capture nutrients before they enter waterways.
In our own yards, the best way to reduce excess nutrients is to use fertilizers carefully and slow storm water runoff by using techniques such as rain gardens.
Visit EcoWatch’s WATER page for more related news on this topic.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.