Quantcast

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.

The hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the second only in the world to the flush of toxins from Eurasia that pollute the Baltic Sea. Hypoxic zones occur naturally wherever major rivers meet the ocean. However, human activity has increased their area, and these persistent dead zones lead to health threats, economic losses and diminished food supplies. Photo credit: NOAA

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.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Lake Erie's Toxic Algae Bloom Forecast for Summer 2016

New Website Helps Connect the Dots Between Extreme Weather Events and Climate Change

Arctic, Greenland Stuck in Feedback Loop of Melting

Flooding and Climate Change: French Acceptance, Texas Denial

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Climate activists protest Chase Bank's continued funding of the fossil fuel industry on May 16, 2019 by setting up a tripod-blockade in midtown Manhattan, clogging traffic for over an hour. Michael Nigro / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Julia Conley

Climate campaigners on Friday expressed hope that policymakers who are stalling on taking decisive climate action would reconsider their stance in light of new warnings from an unlikely source: two economists at J.P. Morgan Chase.

Read More
Protesters holding signs in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en Nation outside the Canadian Consulate in NYC. The Indigenous Peoples Day NYC Committee (IPDNYC), a coalition of 13 Indigenous Peoples and indigenous-led organizations gathered outside the Canadian Consulate and Permanent Mission to the UN to support the Wet'suwet'en Nation in their opposition to a Coastal GasLink pipeline scheduled to enter their traditional territory in British Columbia, Canada. Erik McGregor / LightRocket / Getty Images

Tensions are continuing to rise in Canada over a controversial pipeline project as protesters enter their 12th day blockading railways, demonstrating on streets and highways, and paralyzing the nation's rail system

Read More
Sponsored
padnpen / iStock / Getty Images

Yet another reason to avoid the typical western diet: eating high-fat, highly processed junk food filled with added sugars can impair brain function and lead to overeating in just one week.

Read More
Horseshoe Bend (seen above) is a horseshoe-shaped meander of the Colorado River in Page, Arizona. didier.camus / Flickr / public domain

Millions of people rely on the Colorado River, but the climate crisis is causing the river to dry up, putting many at risk of "severe water shortages," according to new research, as The Guardian reported.

Read More
An alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, as seen here in Christmas Valley, South Lake Tahoe, California on Feb. 15, 2020. jcookfisher / CC BY 2.0

California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.

The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.

"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."

While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.

On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."