2010 Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone Among Largest Ever, Scientists Say

Oxygen concentration in bottom-water across the Louisiana-Texas shelf from July 25-31, 2010. the black line outlines values less than 2 mg/L,or hypoxia. Letters indicate transects. Black dots are sampled stations. Data source: N.N. Rabalais, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, R.E. Turner, Louisiana State University. Funded by: NOAA, Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research

The delicate ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico was wounded long before Katrina stormed ashore, and her wildlife was poisoned by chemicals streaming down the Mississippi River long before BP stirred a few million gallons of crude into her waters. The Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) has been monitoring hypoxia — lack of oxygen — in the Gulf waters since 1985. Much of this hypoxia is caused by agricultural chemicals and farm animal waste products that flow into the Mississippi from 19 states to the north. (Iowa alone is estimated to be responsible for 25% of the farm chemicals and fecal matter pouring into the Gulf.) Efforts are underway to reduce the agricultural pollution that is contributing heavily to the Dead Zone, but more must be done to make a positive impact on the area.

Yesterday, Blue Planet Green Living received an email from Dr. Nancy Rabalais, Executive Director of LUMCON, with the group’s latest report. The following information is reprinted from 2010 DEAD ZONE – ONE OF THE LARGEST EVER,” dated 1 August 2010, from Cocodrie, Louisiana. (Only some of the graphics are reproduced here.) — Joe Hennager

The area of hypoxia, or low oxygen, in the northern Gulf of Mexico west of the Mississippi River delta covered 20,000 square kilometers (7,722 square miles) of the bottom and extended far into Texas waters. The relative size is almost that of Massachusetts. The critical value that defines hypoxia is 2 mg/L, or ppm, because trawlers cannot catch fish or shrimp on the bottom when oxygen falls lower.

This summer’s hypoxic zone (“dead zone”) is one of the largest measured since the team of researchers from Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and Louisiana State University began routine mapping in 1985. Dr. Nancy Rabalais, Executive Director of LUMCON and Chief Scientist aboard the research vessel Pelican, was unsure what would be found because of recent weather, but an earlier cruise by a NOAA fisheries team found hypoxia off the Galveston, Texas area. She commented “This is the largest such area off the upper Texas coast that we have found since we began this work in 1985.” She commented that “The total area probably would have been the largest if we had had enough time to completely map the western part.”

Surface water salinity across the Louisiana-Texas shelf from July 25-31, 2010. The redder values are lower salinity and reflect the inputs from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers. Data source: N.N. Rabalais, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, R.E. Turner, Louisiana State University. Funded by: NOAA, Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research

LSU’s Dr. R. Eugene Turner had predicted that this year’s zone would be 19,141 to 21,941 square kilometers (average 20,140 square kilometers or 7,776 square miles), based on the amount of nitrate-nitrogen loaded into the Gulf in May. “The size of the hypoxic zone and nitrogen loading from the river is an unambiguous relationship,” said Turner. “We need to act on that information.”

The size of the summer’s hypoxic zone is important as a benchmark against which progress in nutrient reductions in the Mississippi River system can be measured. The Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Nutrient Management Task Force supports the goal of reducing the size of the hypoxic zone to less than 5,000 square kilometers, or 1,900 square miles, which will require substantial reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus reaching the Gulf. Including this summer’s area estimate, the 5-year average of 19,668 square kilometers (7,594 square miles) is far short of where water quality managers want to be by 2015.

Instead of the usual continuous band of low oxygen along the coast, this summer’s distribution was a patchwork of several areas. The scientists think that this result is because of recent tropical storm activity. Hurricane Alex crossed mid-Gulf earlier in July and stirred up water everywhere, mixing oxygen into the bottom layer. Low oxygen conditions subsequently returned. Later, Tropical Depression Bonnie scattered workers and ships away from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill area and threatened the beginning of the summer’s shelfwide hypoxia mapping cruise. “The threat of high water and seas kept the R/V Pelican at the dock one day longer than planned,” said Rabalais.

Surface water chlorophyll a values, which indicate how much phytoplankton is in the water. Note that the chl a values mirror the inputs of fresh water and nutrients from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers. Data source: N.N. Rabalais, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, R.E. Turner, Louisiana State University. Funded by: NOAA, Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research

This year the mapping started south of Atchafalaya River and headed west instead of starting at the Mississippi River delta, because of expected high seas on the eastern part of the study area. The research group found a large area of hypoxia to the west, well past Galveston Bay, and far offshore, but did not have time to finish the map there. The ship returned to the Atchafalaya River area and began working its way to the east. Another large area of low oxygen was found nearer to the Mississippi River delta.

Nitrogen and phosphorus delivered from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers stimulate high rates of algal growth as phytoplankton. When these algae, or fecal material from their consumers, settle to bottom waters, decomposition of this organic matter by bacteria consumes dissolved oxygen. There is little chance for oxygen from the surface layers to penetrate to the bottom, because of a strong layering of fresher, warmer water over the colder, saltier Gulf of Mexico water during the summer. The result is oxygen depletion, with concentrations so low that many types of fish, shrimp and crabs must flee the area or suffocate. The remaining animals that live in the sediments die if the oxygen continues to fall toward zero.

Time series of bottom-water hypoxic area since 1985. Landmarks for Hypoxia Action Plan indicated with red dashed lines.

Much of the area where hypoxia occurs on the Louisiana coast had been exposed to oil from the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Up to and through the time of the research cruise, there were documented areas of oil sheen seen in satellite imagery west of the Mississippi River. Crew members and scientists were on the lookout for signs of oil, but only found thick oil in the crook of the delta west of Southwest Pass. [Note: work goes on around the clock, so at least 10 hours of sampling each day were in the dark.] Surface water samples intended for hydrocarbon analyses were collected at most stations.

The high biological productivity seen in surface waters to the west of the river was not unusual considering the prediction of size for 2010 and the continued flux of fresh water and nutrients from the river. “It would be difficult to link conditions seen this summer with oil from the BP spill,” said Rabalais, “in either a positive or negative way.” The slicks were not continuous over large areas for extended periods of time, which would be necessary to see the localized effects of toxicity or oxygen drawdown. Rabalais, who accidentally surfaced from a scuba dive into a surface oil slick in May, had seen miles and miles of phytoplankton thick waters before the slick moved in. “The Mississippi River nutrient-enhanced growth of phytoplankton is what fuels the hypoxic zone, and has for many years,” she said.

For details of the 2010 hypoxia cruise, visit http://www.gulfhypoxia.net.

For further information, contact:
Dr. Nancy Rabalais, nrabalais@lumcon.edu
Dr. R. Eugene Turner, euturne@lsu.edu

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