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.

Karen Perry Stillerman is a senior analyst of food and the environment at Union of Concerned Scientists. Reposted with permission from Union of Concerned Scientists.

Show Comments ()

Trump Administration Offers 77 Million Acres in Gulf of Mexico to Oil Industry

The Trump administration is holding the biggest offshore oil and gas lease auction in U.S. history Wednesday, offering all 77 million acres of unleased, available federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

The sale comes as administration officials seek to rescind drilling safety rules approved after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, reduce royalties paid by oil companies, and expand offshore drilling into every ocean in the country.

Keep reading... Show less
Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt. Mitchell Resnick

Pruitt to Restrict Use of Scientific Data in EPA Policymaking

In the coming weeks, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt is expected to announce a proposal that would limit the type of scientific studies and data the agency can use in crafting public health and environmental regulations.

The planned policy shift, first reported by E&E News, would require the EPA to only use scientific findings whose data and methodologies are made public and can be replicated.

Keep reading... Show less
Mity / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

20% of U.S. Diets Responsible for Almost Half of Country’s Food-Related Emissions, Study Finds

If you've been deliberating about going vegetarian, a study published Tuesday in Environmental Letters might give you the final push.

Keep reading... Show less
Sea Shepherd small boat assists the Liberian Coast Guard to chase down the F/V Hai Lung. Sea Shepherd

Notorious Toothfish Poacher Arrested by Liberian Coast Guard, Assisted by Sea Shepherd

A notorious Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish poaching vessel, famous for plundering the Antarctic, was arrested on March 13 in waters belonging to the West African state of Liberia by the Liberian Coast Guard, with assistance from the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd.

The F/V Hai Lung, known to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) by its previous name "Kily," was transiting through Liberian waters when it was boarded and inspected by a Liberian Coast Guard team working alongside Sea Shepherd crew on board Sea Shepherd's patrol vessel M/Y Sam Simon.

Keep reading... Show less

7 Must-See Films at the 42nd Cleveland International Film Fest

It's that time, again!

EcoWatch is proud to be a media partner of the Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF), now celebrating its 42nd year. This year, EcoWatch is honored to be sponsoring Anote's Ark. This documentary spotlights Kiribati, a small remote island facing devastating effects due to climate change.

Keep reading... Show less
Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: 'We have approved Bayer's plans to take over Monsanto because the parties' remedies, worth well over €6 billion, meet our competition concerns in full.' EU Commission Twitter

EU Approves Controversial Bayer-Monsanto Merger

The European Union approved Bayer's takeover of Monsanto, a major hurdle in the $66 billion merger that would create the world's largest integrated seed and pesticide conglomerate.

The European Commission said the German chemical-maker's takeover of the St. Louis-based agribusiness giant is "conditional on an extensive remedy package, which addresses the parties' overlaps in seeds, pesticides and digital agriculture."

Keep reading... Show less
Todd Porter & Diane Cu

How Much Daily Activity You Need to Burn off 9 Healthy (But High-Calorie) Foods

By Luke Doyle

A healthy lifestyle is fueled by nutrient-rich foods that give your body the energy it needs. But some of these foods come with high calorie counts and the "healthy" label doesn't mean it's okay to consume unlimited amounts of them.

Keep reading... Show less
Marine debris laden beach in Hawaii. NOAA Marine Debris Program / Flickr

Ocean Plastic Projected to Triple Within Seven Years

If we don't act now, plastic pollution in the world's oceans is projected to increase three-fold within seven years, according to a startling new report.

The Future of the Sea report, released Wednesday for the UK government, found that human beings across the globe produce more than 300 million metric tons of plastic per year. Unfortunately, a lot of that material ends up in our waters, with the total amount of plastic debris in the sea predicted to increase from 50 million metric tons in 2015 to 150 million metric tons by 2025.

Keep reading... Show less


The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!