Quantcast

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.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

America's national bird is threatened by hunters. Not that hunters are taking aim at the iconic bald eagle, but bald eagles are dying after eating lead bullets, as CNN reported.

Read More
Bill Bader, owner of Bader Farms, and his wife Denise pose in front of the Rush Hudson Limbaugh Sr. United States Courthouse in Cape Girardeau, Missouri on Jan. 27, 2020. Johnathan Hettinger / Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

A jury in Missouri awarded a farmer $265 million in a lawsuit that claimed Bayer and BASF's weedkiller destroyed his peach orchard, as Reuters reported.

Read More
Sponsored
Earthjustice says Louisiana has violated the Clean Water Act and given Formosa Plastics Group the "greenlight to double toxic air pollution in St. James" (seen above). Louisiana Bucket Brigade

By Jessica Corbett

A coalition of local and national groups on Friday launched a legal challenge to a Louisiana state agency's decision to approve air permits for a $9.4 billion petrochemical complex that Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group plans to build in the region nationally known as "Cancer Alley."

Read More
Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Bob Wick / BLM / onEarth

By Jeff Turrentine

Well, he told us he would do it. And now he's actually doing it — or at least trying to. Late last week, President Trump, via the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management, announced that he was formalizing his plan to develop lands that once belonged within the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in southern Utah. The former is a stunningly beautiful, ecologically fragile landscape that has played a crucial role in Native American culture in the Southwest for thousands of years; the latter, just as beautiful, is one of the richest and most important paleontological sites in North America.

Read More
Smoke pours from the exhaust pipes on a truck on Nov. 5, 2019 in Miami, Florida. According to a 2017 EPA study the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. is from the transportation sector. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

By Julie McNamara

First, a fact: People want clean air. And who can blame them — in the United States more than 100,000 people still die from air pollution each year.

Read More