Quantcast
Popular
NOAA

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 ()
Sponsored
vimeo.com

Video Shows Oil Company's Plans to Drill Arctic From Artificial Island

The Liberty Project has posted a video about its proposal to build the nation's first oil production platform in federal waters in the Arctic.

The video was quietly uploaded two months ago and shows Hilcorp Alaska's plan to build an artificial gravel island and undersea pipeline for its offshore drilling project in the Beaufort Sea. Frankly speaking, the five-minute clip—with its all-American voiceover and electric guitar riffs—is something you'd expect from a pickup truck commercial.

Keep reading... Show less
www.youtube.com

Scientists Discover Sea Levels Rose in Sharp Bursts During Last Warming

By Rice University

Scientists from Rice University and Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi's Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies have discovered that Earth's sea level did not rise steadily but rather in sharp, punctuated bursts when the planet's glaciers melted during the period of global warming at the close of the last ice age. The researchers found fossil evidence in drowned reefs offshore Texas that showed sea level rose in several bursts ranging in length from a few decades to one century.

The findings appeared Wednesday in Nature Communications.

Keep reading... Show less
Gemasolar 15 MW Parabolic Power Plant in Spain / Greenpeace

Quitting Coal: New Global Survey Names the Companies, Countries and Cities

More than a quarter of the 1,675 companies that owned or developed coal-fired power capacity since 2010 have entirely left the coal power business, according to new research from CoalSwarm and Greenpeace. This represents nearly 370 large coal-fired power plants—enough to power around six United Kingdoms—and equivalent to nearly half a trillion dollars in assets retired or not developed.

While many generating companies go through this rapid makeover, the research also shows that a total of 23 countries, states and cities will have either phased out coal-fired power plants or set a timeline to do so by 2030.

Keep reading... Show less
Roderick Eime / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

New Evidence Suggests Ancient Egypt Was Brought Down By Volcanoes and Climate Change

Ancient Egypt is often described as an exotic place—pyramids, hieroglyphics, lavishly worshipped kings and queens.

But in many ways, it has a lot of parallels to modern life. It was an economically diverse, culturally vibrant and unequal place.

The millenniums-old society also struggled with a phenomenon that people today know all too well: climate change. And it may have ultimately led to the civilization's demise, according to a new paper by a team of researchers at Yale University.

The team of researchers studied the tail-end of ancient Egypt during the Ptolemaic dynasty between 305-30 BCE.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Portuguese youth plaintiffs, from left to right: Simão and Leonor; Cláudia, Martim and Mariana; André and Sofia. Global Legal Action Network

Kids Harmed by Portugal Fires Reach Key Crowdfunding Goal for Climate Lawsuit

As Portugal reels from its worst wildfires on record, seven Portuguese children have met an important crowdfunding goal for their major climate lawsuit against 47 European nations.

More than £20,000 ($26,400) was pledged by 589 people, allowing the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN)—the nonprofit coordinating the lawsuit—to identify and compile evidence to present to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. GLAN now has a new stretch target of £100,000.

Keep reading... Show less
Flying insects such as bees are important pollinators. Flickr / M I T C H Ǝ L L

German Nature Reserves Have Lost More Than 75% of Flying Insects

A new study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE adds more evidence that insect populations around the globe are in perilous decline.

For the study, researchers from Radboud University in the Netherlands, alongside their German and English colleagues, measured the biomass of trapped flying insects at 63 nature preserves in Germany since 1989. They were shocked to discover that the total biomass decreased dramatically over the 27 years of the study, with a seasonal decline of 76 percent and mid-summer decline of 82 percent, when insect numbers tend to peak.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Politics

Pushing Toxic Chemicals and Climate Denial: The Dark Money-Funded Independent Women’s Forum

By Stacy Malkan

The Independent Women's Forum is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that has taken money from tobacco and oil companies, partners with Monsanto, defends toxic chemicals in food and consumer products, denies climate science and argues against laws that would curb the power of corporations.

IWF began in 1991 as an effort to defend now Supreme Court Justice (and former Monsanto attorney) Clarence Thomas as he faced sexual harassment charges. The group now says it seeks to "improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty."

Keep reading... Show less
Mladen Kostic / iStock

Toxic Toys? After Nine Years, a Ban on Harmful Chemicals Becomes Official

Phthalates are a particularly harmful type of chemical, used, among a range of other ways, to soften plastic in children's toys and products like pacifiers and teething rings. In response to mounting concern about the serious health impacts of phthalates—most notably, interference with hormone production and reproductive development in young children—Congress voted overwhelmingly in 2008 to outlaw the use of a few phthalates in these products and ordered the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to assess the use of other types of the chemical in these products. After much delay, the CPSC voted 3–2 Wednesday to ban five additional types of phthalates in kids' toys and childcare products.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

Get EcoWatch in your inbox