Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Devil in the Deep Blue Sea: How Many Dead Zones Are Out There?

A stretch of the Gulf of Mexico spanning more than 5,000 square miles along the Louisiana coast is nearly devoid of marine life this summer, according to a study released this week. Caused largely by nutrient runoff from farm fertilizer, this oxygen-deprived “dead zone” is approximately the size of Connecticut. Although slightly smaller than last summer’s edition, the Gulf dead zone is still touted by some as the largest in the U.S. and costs $82 million annually in diminished tourism and fishing yield. Which makes you wonder…

How many other dead zones are out there?

Probably around 200 in U.S. waters alone. After reviewing the academic literature on “hypoxic zones” in 2012, Robert Diaz, professor emeritus at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary, identified 166 reports of dead zones in the country. Coastal waters contain the vast majority, though some exist in inland waterways. A handful of the 166 dead zones have since bounced back through improved management of sewage and agricultural runoff, but as fertilizer use and factory farming increase, we are creating dead zones faster than nature can recover.

There are more than 400 known dead zones worldwide, covering about 1 percent of the area of the continental shelves. That number is almost certainly a vast undercount, though, since large parts of Africa, South America and Asia have yet to be adequately studied. Diaz estimates that a more accurate count is 1,000-plus dead zones globally.

What causes these things?

Agricultural practices are the biggest culprit in the U.S. and Europe. Rains wash excess fertilizer from farms into interior waterways, which eventually empty into the ocean. At the mouths of rivers, such as the Mississippi, the glut of phosphorous and nitrogen intended for human crops instead feeds marine phytoplankton. A phytoplanktonic surge leads to a boom in bacteria, which feed on the plankton and consume oxygen as part of their respiration. That leaves very little dissolved oxygen in the subsurface waters. Without oxygen, most marine life cannot survive.

Sewage causes the majority of dead zones in Africa and South America. That’s a good thing, in a way, because engineers have been working for hundreds of years on sewage management solutions. In the early 19th century, London built a sewer system to divert waste from newfangled flush toilets into the Thames. With this influx of nutrients—one creature’s sewage is another’s sustenance—bacterial populations multiplied and depleted the river’s oxygen. The circumstances chased off aquatic life and enveloped the city in a horrific stench, culminating in the Great Stink of 1858. Sewage treatment and managed releases remedied the situation back then, and similar infrastructure investments could likely alleviate the excrement-fueled dead zones of the modern world.

Airborne nitrogen also contributes to the world’s dead zones. When cars, trucks and power plants burn fossil fuels, they emit nitrogen into the air. These particulates eventually settle into waterways and head for the sea. Nitrification is a special problem in Long Island Sound and the Chesapeake Bay, which have absorbed large amounts of nitrogen from coal-burning power plants in the Midwest.

Do I live near a dead zone?

The largest U.S. dead zones are in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Oregon. But, as this map illustrates, everyone in the eastern and southeastern U.S. lives close to a dead zone of some size.

Read page 1

There are two reasons for the density of dead zones along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. First, look at a heat map of U.S. population density. There is an astonishing concentration of people, as well as animals and farms to feed them, in the East.

Second, there simply aren’t that many rivers draining into the Pacific Ocean. With fewer rivers to carry farm runoff to the sea, fewer dead zones form.

The eastern portion of Long Island Sound, has suffered dead zones nearly every year for the last two decades. Even halfway across the Sound—more than 50 miles from the most densely populated parts of New York City—the waters have been hypoxic in at least 10 of the last 20 summers.

The Chesapeake Bay hosts several dead zones, each from the drainage of a different river. According to Diaz, agricultural runoff and sewage account for about three-quarters of the problem. The other quarter is the result of airborne nitrogen.

You needn’t live near a coast to have a dead zone. Lake Erie is likely in for a serious case of hypoxia this summer. The cyanobacteria that contaminated Toledo’s drinking water over the weekend will soon die and sink to the bottom, where other bacteria will feast on their remains and consume the lake’s dissolved oxygen.

Are humans solely responsible for dead zones?

No, but we almost always play a role. Natural processes, such as the churning of ocean waters, can form dead zones on their own. The massive dead zone born in 2002 near the coast of Oregon—which rivals the Gulf of Mexico dead zone in area—is the result of the upwelling of nutrients that fed an algal bloom. As the algae died and settled, they created a hypoxic area. Not all scientists think the dead zone was entirely natural, though. Many believe changes in wind circulation related to global warming played a part.

Can dead zones be brought back to life?

Absolutely. The Black Sea once hosted one of the largest hypoxic zones in the world, stretching 15,000 square miles. When agricultural subsidies from the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s, fertilizer runoff dropped by more than 50 percent. The waterways took three years to recover, and international support for runoff management has helped keep the Black Sea alive and well ever since.

There’s no reason the U.S. can’t adopt those practices, too—we simply need to implement the science that we already have. Agricultural researchers have made countless recommendations to minimize farm runoff, but the advice hasn’t been heeded. Other property owners can help by taking it easy on the fertilizer and resisting the urge to install impermeable surfaces like concrete. And we already have plenty of other reasons to retire coal-fired power plants—dead zones are just one more. After all, it needn’t take the fall of an empire to improve a nation’s coastal areas.

This article was originally posted in Natural Resources Defense Council’s OnEarth.

YOU ALSO MIGHT LIKE

EPA Rule Would Close Loopholes in Clean Water Act, Restore Protections for Streams and Wetlands

The Why, What and How of Rain Gardens

35 Superstar Beaches (And 17 You Might Want to Reconsider)

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

By Michael Svoboda

The enduring pandemic will make conventional forms of travel difficult if not impossible this summer. As a result, many will consider virtual alternatives for their vacations, including one of the oldest forms of virtual reality – books.

Read More Show Less
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility on Thursday accused NOAA of ignoring its own scientists' findings about the endangerment of the North Atlantic right whale. Lauren Packard / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

By Julia Conley

As the North Atlantic right whale was placed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's list of critically endangered species Thursday, environmental protection groups accusing the U.S. government of bowing to fishing and fossil fuel industry pressure to downplay the threat and failing to enact common-sense restrictions to protect the animals.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Beth Ann Mayer

Since even moderate-intensity workouts offer a slew of benefits, walking is a good choice for people looking to stay healthy.

Read More Show Less
Much of Eastern Oklahoma, including most of Tulsa, remains an Indian reservation, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday. JustTulsa / CC BY 2.0

Much of Eastern Oklahoma, including most of Tulsa, remains an Indian reservation, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

Read More Show Less
The Firefly Watch project is among the options for aspiring citizen scientists to join. Mike Lewinski / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

By Tiffany Means

Summer and fall are great seasons to enjoy the outdoors. But if you're already spending extra time outside because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be out of ideas on how to make fresh-air activities feel special. Here are a few suggestions to keep both adults and children entertained and educated in the months ahead, many of which can be done from the comfort of one's home or backyard.

Read More Show Less
People sit at the bar of a restaurant in Austin, Texas, on June 26, 2020. Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered bars to be closed by noon on June 26 and for restaurants to be reduced to 50% occupancy. Coronavirus cases in Texas spiked after being one of the first states to begin reopening. SERGIO FLORES / AFP via Getty Images

The coronavirus may linger in the air in crowded indoor spaces, spreading from one person to the next, the World Health Organization acknowledged on Thursday, as The New York Times reported. The announcement came just days after 239 scientists wrote a letter urging the WHO to consider that the novel coronavirus is lingering in indoor spaces and infecting people, as EcoWatch reported.

Read More Show Less

Trending

A never-before-documented frog species has been discovered in the Peruvian highlands and named Phrynopus remotum. Germán Chávez

By Angela Nicoletti

The eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains in central Perú are among the most remote places in the world.

Read More Show Less