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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If weather is your mood, climate is your personality. That's an analogy some scientists use to help explain the difference between two words people often get mixed up.
Size Matters<p>Climates are a bit like woven tapestries. The big picture is important, no question. But so are all the seemingly minor details found inside the larger whole.</p><p><a href="https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/en/persons/tommaso-jucker" target="_blank">Tommaso Jucker</a> is an environmental scientist at the University of Bristol. In an email, Jucker says he'd define the term microclimate as "the suite of climatic conditions (temperature, rainfall, humidity, solar radiation) measured in localized areas, typically near the ground and at spatial scales that are directly relevant to ecological processes."</p><p>We'll talk about that last bit in a minute. But first, there's another criteria to discuss. According to some researchers, a microclimate — by definition — must differ from the larger area that surrounds it.</p><p><a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/research/paleoecologylab/publications/Davis_et_al_2019_Ecography.pdf" target="_blank">Forests</a> provide us with some great examples. "The climate near the ground in a tropical rainforest is dramatically different from the climate in the canopy 50 meters [164 feet] above," says University of Montana ecologist <a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/personnel/details.php?ID=1110" target="_blank">Solomon Dobrowski</a> in an email. "This vertical gradient among other factors allows for the staggering biodiversity we see in the tropics."</p><p>Likewise, scientists observed that a 2015 partial <a href="https://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/bees-stopped-buzzing-during-2017-solar-eclipse.htm" target="_blank">solar eclipse</a> caused the air temperature of an Eastern European meadow to <a href="https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wea.2802" target="_blank">change more dramatically</a> than it did in a nearby forest. That's because trees provide not only shade, but their leaves also reflect solar radiation. At the same time, forests tend to reduce wind speeds.</p><p>All those factors add up. A 2019 review of 98 wooded places — spread out across five continents — found that forests are 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) <a href="https://natureecoevocommunity.nature.com/posts/47363-forests-protect-animals-and-plants-against-warming" target="_blank">cooler on average</a> than the areas outside them.</p><p>Now if you hate the cold, don't worry; there's a cozy exception to the rule. According to that same study, forests are usually 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than the external environment during the wintertime. Pretty cool.</p>
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The urban heat island effect is a good example of how microclimates work. NOAA
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