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Near Record ‘Dead Zone’ Predicted for Gulf of Mexico

Oceans
This map shows how pollution from cities and farms flows down into the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA

Every year the Gulf of Mexico hosts a human caused "dead zone." This year, it will approach record levels scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — or NOAA — estimate, in a statement released Monday.


The researchers predict the hypoxic zone — an area with little to no oxygen that can kill marine life — to be nearly 8,000 square miles or roughly the size of Massachusetts.

NOAA wasn't the only organization to estimate a near record dead zone this summer. Researchers from Louisiana State University (LSU) released a statement on Monday predicting this year's dead zone to be 8,717 square miles, making it the second largest on record.

"We think this will be the second-largest, but it could very well go over that," said Nancy Rabalais, a marine ecologist who studies dead zones co-authored the LSU report, as CNN reported.

The Gulf of Mexico's dead zone is a result of nutrient pollution, including nitrogen and phosphorus from urban environments and farms, traveling through the Mississippi River watershed and into the gulf, according to NOAA's press release.

NOAA pointed to the overwhelming spring rains along the Mississippi River, which led to record high river flows and flooding, as a major contributing factor to this year's sizeable dead zone.

The record flooding brought a substantial amount of pollutants into the water. "This past May, discharge in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers was about 67 percent above the long-term average between 1980 and 2018. USGS estimates that this larger-than average river discharge carried 156,000 metric tons of nitrate and 25,300 metric tons of phosphorus into the Gulf of Mexico in May alone. These nitrate loads were about 18 percent above the long-term average, and phosphorus loads were about 49 percent above the long-term average," NOAA said in its press release.

What happens is the nitrogen and phosphorus stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, which fall to the bottom of the water and decompose with the bacteria that uses up the oxygen, creating an area with not enough oxygen to sustain life.

"The low oxygen conditions in the gulf's most productive waters stresses organisms and may even cause their death, threatening living resources, including fish, shrimp and crabs caught there," LSU said in a statement. "Low oxygen conditions started to appear 50 years ago when agricultural practices intensified in the Midwest."

To prevent the problem in the future, a task force of federal, state and tribal agencies from 12 of the 31 states that comprise the Mississippi River watershed set a goal of reducing the dead zone from an average of about 5,800 square miles to an average of 1,900 square miles, but that number is far from today's reality, according to NBC Dallas-Fort Worth.

"While this year's zone will be larger than usual because of the flooding, the long-term trend is still not changing," said Don Scavia, an aquatic ecologist at the University of Michigan who contributed to the NOAA report, in a University of Michigan statement. "The bottom line is that we will never reach the dead zone reduction target of 1,900 square miles until more serious actions are taken to reduce the loss of Midwest fertilizers into the Mississippi River system."

In the meantime, farmers along the Mississippi can build embankments to stop runoff, diversifying their crops and using sustainable perennials like wheat grass, which will hold more nitrogen and soil in the ground since it has a longer root than corn and soybeans, according to CNN.

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Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.

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The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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