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There’s Nothing Average About This Year’s Gulf of Mexico 'Dead Zone'
By Andrea Basche
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released Thursday its annual forecast for the size of the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone"—an area of coastal water where low oxygen is lethal to marine life. They say we should expect an “average year." That doesn't sound so bad, but as we wrote last year, the dead zone average is approximately 6,000 square miles or the size of the state of Connecticut. Average is not normal.
This is especially troubling when we know that solutions exist for reducing agricultural pollution, which contributes to the dead zone. And for many years, there's been a lot of effort dedicated to reducing the dead zone's massive footprint.
The Dead Zone Starts on the Farm
Dead zones—also known as hypoxic zones—can occur naturally, but human activity perpetuates their presence. Hypoxia in the ocean results from low dissolved oxygen, a state that occurs when excess pollutants, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, enter bodies of water. These pollutants have various natural and man-made sources, but they are critical nutrients for plant growth and thus the active ingredients in fertilizers applied to farm fields.
The movement of water causes nitrogen to “leach" through the soil or “run off" into bodies of water, while phosphorus most commonly escapes from farm fields with sediment and soil erosion. However they get into water, these pollutants make delicious food sources for algae, which “bloom" as a result of the buffet. Dead algae sink and decompose in water, which depletes oxygen, suffocating other marine organisms.
The second largest dead zone in the world is the one predicted Thursday, in the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River empties into the Gulf and many other bodies of water that run through the Corn Belt and other major agricultural regions of the U.S. feed the Mississippi.
It has been a wet spring across most of the U.S., including the Midwest and it is true that the amount of rainfall (and thus water moving through and over the soil) impacts the size of the dead zone from year to year. But so do the practices on farms and these are much more within our control than the rain.
Myth Busting: Fertilizer is Only One Part of a Bigger Farming Problem
Every single article I read in news about the dead zone, algal blooms in Lake Erie or polluted drinking water in Des Moines, seems to count the number one evildoer as fertilizer, particularly farmers who are applying too much of it. As someone who researched Midwest agriculture while living in Iowa for several years, this drives me a little crazy because the gross oversimplification misses the bigger farming problem, of which the amount of fertilizer is just a part. A major issue with our farming system today, especially in the Corn Belt, is that the primary crop only grows from April/May until September/October when harvested. The rest of the fall, winter and spring leave the soil bare and susceptible to phosphorus and nitrogen loss.
One proposed solution to the runoff problem is what's known as the “4R" strategy—using fertilizer at the right rate, the right time, the right place and the right source. There is no doubt that such practices can help reduce water pollution and dead zones, but not enough from my perspective, especially given the disproportionate emphasis placed on such approaches as a “silver bullet."
A more ecological approach to farming—mainly, finding ways to protect the soil all year, including perennial crops, agroforestry or cover crops—could be a highly effective strategy to reducing water pollution and ultimately the size of the dead zone. However, we currently discourage farmers from applying their highest management skills, due to a history of farm policies (from crop insurance to other market supports) that incentivize annual cropping patterns focused on short-term results.
This is Not a Problem Disappearing Anytime Soon
Along with scientists and other partners, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a task force in 1997 to deal with the dead zone issue and coordinate a plan to reduce its effects. Through that task force, the goal of limiting the dead zone size to roughly 3,000 square miles was determined. Again, this year's prediction is for 6,000 square miles (a prediction that comes from several research groups or an ensemble of models, common in weather forecasting). The actual size of the dead zone will be monitored by NOAA and partners in late July and officially released in early August.
The news of a dead zone predicted to be more than double the designated goal is why an “average" forecast should actually be alarming, particularly after two decades of efforts to make the problem better. Certainly this is an issue that has not and will not disappear overnight and there are many farmers trying to improve the situation. However, until we start to have an honest discussion that includes policy change toward perennializing farming and moving beyond fertilizer management, I don't expect to see better than average dead zone forecasts anytime soon.
Andrea Basche is a Kendall Science Fellow in the Union of Concerned Scientist's food and environment program.
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By Sharon Kelly
A report published Wednesday names the banks that have played the biggest recent role in funding fossil fuel projects, finding that since 2016, immediately following the Paris agreement's adoption, 33 global banks have poured $1.9 trillion into financing climate-changing projects worldwide.
By Patti Lynn
2018 was a groundbreaking year in the public conversation about climate change. Last February, The New York Times reported that a record percentage of Americans now believe that climate change is caused by humans, and there was a 20 percentage point rise in "the number of Americans who say they worry 'a great deal' about climate change."
England faces an "existential threat" if it does not change how it manages its water, the head of the country's Environment Agency warned Tuesday.
By Jessica Corbett
A new analysis revealed Tuesday that over the past two decades heat records across the U.S. have been broken twice as often as cold ones—underscoring experts' warnings about the increasingly dangerous consequences of failing to dramatically curb planet-warming emissions.
By Madison Dapcevich
Ask any resident of San Francisco about the waterfront parrots, and they will surely tell you a story of red-faced conures squawking or dive-bombing between building peaks. Ask a team of researchers from the University of Georgia, however, and they will tell you of a mysterious string of neurological poisonings impacting the naturalized flock for decades.
The initial cause of the fire was not yet known, but it has been driven by the strong wind and jumped the North Santiam River, The Salem Statesman Journal reported. As of Tuesday night, it threatened around 35 homes and 30 buildings, and was 20 percent contained.
The unanimous verdict was announced Tuesday in San Francisco in the first federal case to be brought against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, alleging that repeated use of the company's glyphosate-containing weedkiller caused the plaintiff's cancer. Seventy-year-old Edwin Hardeman of Santa Rosa, California said he used Roundup for almost 30 years on his properties before developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."
Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.
"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."
Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.
However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.
"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.
Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.
Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.
"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.
Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.