This Summer's Gulf 'Dead Zone' Could Be Bigger Than Connecticut
By Karen Perry Stillerman
Summer is almost here, and you know what that means. Sun, sand and ... a watery wasteland devoid of all life? Yep, this is the time each year when a team of federal and university scientists predicts the size of the so-called dead zone that will develop in the Gulf of Mexico later in the summer. We're waiting for that official prediction, but based on federal nitrate flux data and Midwest weather patterns this spring, it seems likely that it will be bigger than usual.
That means a swath of marine habitat considerably larger than the state of Connecticut could be lifeless by summer's end—a haunting prospect for coastal ecosystems, fisheries, and the men and women who earn their livelihoods from them. And the Trump administration's budget proposal and general antagonism toward science and environmental protection are likely to make the problem worse in the future.
Dead zones don't talk
Marine and coastal dead zones are the result of a phenomenon called hypoxia—a state of low dissolved oxygen that occurs when excess pollutants, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, accumulate in bodies of water. These nutrients feed blooms of algae that, when they die and decompose, deplete the oxygen in the surrounding water. Hypoxia is a silent killer, suffocating organisms that can't escape the low-oxygen zone quickly enough, and causing others to flee.
As we wrote a year ago when the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted an "average" (roughly Connecticut-sized) Gulf dead zone, even average is not the same as normal. Nitrogen and phosphorus can come from many sources, but the largest are due to human activity, including sewage discharges and fertilizers from farm fields running off into rivers and streams.
In 2010, researchers at the University of Illinois showed that the problem of runoff from industrialized, corn-and-soybean intensive agriculture, with its system of underground drainage channels, dwarfs the impact of cities and other nutrient sources in the Midwest. Essentially, each year the Mississippi River and its many tributaries meandering through the Corn Belt quietly funnel a vast amount of agricultural pollution into the Gulf.
April showers bring May flowers, but what do May downpours bring?
The size of the dead zone in any given year is dependent not just on how much fertilizer was applied to fields in the drainage area, but also on the amount of rainfall available to carry it from the land into the rivers and on to the Gulf. This spring has been a wet one in the Midwest, and the drenching rains and widespread flooding that hit parts of the region in late April and continued into May have created ideal conditions for a large flush of nutrients downstream.
The two graphs below from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)—which monitors stream flow and nitrate levels in rivers and streams—show how the nitrate "flux" in the Mississippi River basin in May 2017 compares with previous years, and how the actual size of the dead zone tracks those fluxes each year. It's easy to see the contrast between a wet year like this one and, say, the devastating drought year of 2012.
These are preliminary data that the scientific team led by NOAA will use in making its dead zone prediction this month.
The solution to dead zone pollution …
Nope, it's not dilution. Even very large bodies of water like the Gulf of Mexico aren't safe from this annual, preventable destruction. And recurring dead zones and toxic algae blooms also plague other large water bodies including the Chesapeake Bay and Lake Erie. Just today, NOAA predicted a larger-than-average dead zone in the Chesapeake Bay this summer.
And there's more bad news—climate change is likely making these problems worse. A study published earlier this year examined runoff data from the drought year 2012 and the following, wetter year, to show how "weather whiplash" can increase the flow of nitrate into the Gulf. So we can expect more of the same as the cycle of Midwestern floods and droughts becomes more intense and erratic in the future.
In addition, as the climate heats up, shallow waters like the end of Lake Erie that abuts Toledo, Ohio, will be warmer and thus will likely suffer more toxic algae blooms that taint the city's drinking water, causing recurring health risks and economic pain.
It's clear that decreasing the size and severity of algae blooms and dead zones will require significant reductions to current rates of fertilizer runoff in the Midwest. And fortunately, there is bountiful evidence about how to do that on the region's farms. As we've documented in two recent reports, for example, innovative farming practices such as extended crop rotations can cut fertilizer use significantly, and planting perennial prairie strips in and around cropland can dramatically reduce the amount of nitrogen that escapes from those lands into waterways. Even better, we've shown that such practices and systems are also good for farmers' bottom lines.
Budget cuts could grow the dead zone (and shrink opportunities for farmers)
But just when pollution-cutting practices are showing such promise and are needed more than ever, the Trump administration's proposed Department of Agriculture (USDA) budget could hamstring the department's efforts to help farmers implement them, cutting programs that deliver financial and technical support for farmers.
Moreover, proposed major cuts at NOAA, the USGS, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would hamper the ability of scientists at those agencies to study and remediate the Gulf dead zone and other water bodies that suffer from hypoxia and toxic algal blooms due to fertilizer pollution.
Water pollution from agriculture has real impacts on farmers, coastal and lakeshore communities across the country, and millions of Americans. Even as we wait to see if this year's problem in the Gulf will be as bad as we think, UCS is advocating for policies and budget investments that could truly tackle the problem in future years.
Join us by calling on Congress to reject the Trump administration's unacceptable budget cuts at the USDA, and instead vote to fully fund proven programs that keep our water clean, improve farmers' livelihoods and help hungry families.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jeff Masters, Ph.D.
Tropical Storm Josephine Also No Threat to Land<p>Meanwhile, the season's record-earliest tenth named storm, Tropical Storm Josephine, was also struggling with high wind shear as it traced out a path over the open ocean.</p><p>At 5 a.m. EDT Saturday, Josephine was located about 310 miles east of the northern Leeward Islands, moving west-northwest at 15 mph with top sustained winds at 45 mph. Josephine is expected to bring one to three inches of rain over portions of the northern Leeward Islands, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico over the weekend. Josephine will encounter steadily rising wind shear through Monday, peaking at a very high 30 – 35 knots. This high shear is likely to destroy Josephine's circulation by Monday, before the storm can affect any other land areas.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/08/tropical-storm-kyle-forms-unlikely-to-affect-land/" target="_blank">Yale Climate Connections</a>. </em><em></em></p>
By Ute Eberle
In May 2017, shells started washing up along the Ligurian coast in Italy. They were small and purple and belonged to a snail called Janthina pallida that is rarely seen on land. But the snails kept coming — so many that entire stretches of the beach turned pastel.
The Ligurian coast has been swept by snails turning its color pastel.
A World Between Worlds<p>The neuston comprises a multitude of weird and wonderful creatures. </p><p>Many, like the Portuguese man-of-war, which paralyzes its prey with venomous tentacles up to 30 meters long, are colored an electric shade of blue, possibly to protect themselves against the sun's UV rays, or as camouflages against predators.</p><p>There are also by-the-wind sailors, flattish creatures that raise chitin shields from the water like sails; slugs known as sea dragons that cling to the water's surface from below with webbed appendages; barnacles that build bubble rafts as big as dinner plates; and the world's only marine insects, a relation of the pond skater.</p><p>They live "between the worlds" of the sea and sky, as Federico Betti, a marine biologist at the University of Genoa, puts it. From below, predators lurk. From above, the sun burns. Winds and waves toss them about. Depending on the weather, their environment may be warm or cool, salty or less so.</p>
Sea snails can make up the neuston.
Velella velella jellyfish living on the surface of the ocean.<p>But now, they face another — manmade — threat from nets designed to catch trash. A project called <a href="https://theoceancleanup.com/" target="_blank">The Ocean Cleanup</a>, run by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, has raised millions of dollars in donations and sponsorship to deploy long barriers with nets that will drift across the ocean in open loops to sweep up floating garbage. </p>
Collecting With the Current<p>"Plastic could outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050. To us, that future is unacceptable," <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/green-entrepreneur-sets-sights-on-great-pacific-garbage-patch/a-38855785" target="_blank">The Ocean Cleanup</a> declares on its website.</p><p>But Rebecca Helm, a marine biologist at the University of North Carolina, and one of the few scientists to study this ecosystem, fears that The Ocean Cleanup's proposal to remove 90% of the plastic trash from the water could also virtually wipe out the neuston.</p><p>One focus of Helm's studies is where these organisms congregate. "There are places that are very, very concentrated and areas of little concentration, and we're trying to figure out why," says Helm.</p><p>One factor is that the neuston floats with ocean currents, and Helm worries that it might collect in the exact same spots as marine plastic pollution. "Our initial data show that regions with high concentrations of plastic are also regions with high concentrations of life."</p>
Waste collection in the Pacific Ocean heralded by The Ocean Cleanup.<p>The Ocean Cleanup says Helm's concerns are based on "misguided assumptions."</p><p>"It's true that neustonic organisms will be trapped in the barriers," says Gerhard Herndl, professor of Aquatic Biology at the University of Vienna and one of project's scientific advisors. "But these organisms have dangerous lives. They're adapted to high losses because they get washed ashore in storms and they have high reproductive rates. If they didn't, they'd already be extinct."</p><p>Helm says they just don't know how quickly these creatures reproduce, and in any case recovering from passing storm is very different from surviving The Ocean Clean Up's systems which could be in place for years.</p>
Communication Breakdown<p>The Ocean Cleanup invited Helm to a symposium on the topic in December, where both sides presented their points of views and didn't seem to find much common ground. Since then, direct communication between them has stopped, says Helm. "They're not interested in talking to me anymore."</p><p>Both sides agree that much is still unknown about the neuston. But one thing that has been established is that most of the oceans' fish spend part of their lifecycle in the neuston. "More than 90% of marine fish species produce floating eggs that persist on the surface until hatching," Betti says.</p><p>The Ocean Cleanup has undertaken one of the few studies into this ecosystem, collecting data on the neuston on the relative abundance of neuston and floating plastic debris in the eastern North Pacific Ocean during a 2019 expedition to the Pacific Garbage Patch, an area where plastic pollution has accumulated on a vast scale. But it is not yet sharing what it has found. The information was being prepared for publication in an as of yet unspecified journal, probably some time next year, an Ocean Cleanup spokesperson said. </p>
Inshore Solution?<p>Helm believes the best way to tackle the marine plastic problem would be to position the barriers closer to land — across river mouths and bays — to catch garbage before it reaches the sea.</p><p>"Stopping the flow of plastic into the ocean is the most cost-effective — and literally effective — way to ensure that it's not entering our environment," she says. </p><p>As for the plastic already floating in open waters, she does not believe it is worth sacrificing parts of neuston and wants to see more research first. </p><p>The Ocean Cleanup has made barriers across rivers a part of its mission. But it is also going ahead with its original vision of pulling trash from the open water. In late 2018, the project deployed a 600-meter, u-shaped prototype net into the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/environment-conservation-plastic-oceans/a-54436603" target="_blank">Great Pacific Garbage Patch</a>. </p><p>The system ran into difficulties, failing to retain plastic as hoped, and needing to be brought shore for repairs and a design upgrade, after which Ocean Cleanup says it gathered haul of plastic that it will recycle and resell to help fund future operations.</p><p>Over the next two years, the project hopes to deploy up to 60 such barriers to collect drifting flotsam. Helm isn't the only one concerned about these plans.</p><p><span></span>"We should think twice about every action we take in the sea," Betti says. "In nature, nothing is as easy as we think, and often, we've done a lot of damage while trying to do a good thing."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/environment-conservation-plastic-oceans/a-54436603" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.<a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2646992655#/" target="_self"></a></em><em></em></p>
By Hope Dickens
Molly Craig's day begins with feeding hungry baby birds at 6 a.m. The birds need to be fed every 15 minutes until 7 at night. If she's not feeding them, other staff at the Fox Valley Wildlife Center in Elburn, Illinois take turns helping the hungry orphans.
By Douglas Broom
"Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people," said former U.S. president, Franklin Roosevelt.
So the FAO is using Twitter to remind the world of these five hidden benefits of forests.
A Michigan bald eagle proved that nature can still triumph over machines when it attacked and drowned a nearly $1,000 government drone.
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