Stephen King never saw this real-time nightmare coming. A state-sized dead zone at the bottom of the South, so deprived of oxygen it might as well be deep space — which is, recalling Alien, where no one can hear you scream. I spoke with scientist Nancy Rabalais about her alarming findings for Civil Eats as the bad news broke. And trust me, it’s broken.
Largest-Ever Gulf Dead Zone Reveals Stark Impacts of Industrial Production
A hypoxic dead zone about the size of New Jersey—8,776 square miles—has settled at the bottom of the continental shelf off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana.
Although dead zones—areas of water with little to no oxygen, where fish and other marine life cannot survive—have become an annual phenomenon, this year’s is the largest ever measured in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a direct result of industrial agriculture’s overreliance on chemical fertilizers, and it shows no sign of slowing down. If that’s not enough bad news, that dead zone may actually be even larger than recorded, since the week-long survey ran out of time to chart its full size.
“If we had been able to pursue the area further to the west, we definitely would have found more low oxygen, we’re just not sure how much,” Louisiana State University oceanographer Nancy Rabalais told Civil Eats, shortly after announcing the results of her annual survey. “It may have raised the area to 23,000 square kilometers, or 8,961 square miles.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set a target of keeping the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River to under 1,900 square miles. But considering the steady annual growth of the dead zone since mapping cruises like Rabalais’ began in 1985, there remains much more to be done.
Indeed, Rabalais’ report took pains to note that this year’s mapping found a “mostly continuous band of extremely low-oxygen concentrations alongshore at the nearshore edge of the zone,” an indicator that the cause is coming from land rather than sea.
The culprit is as obvious as it is fixable: Nitrogen and phosphorus used as farm fertilizers flowing off farmlands and into the Mississippi River watershed.
Nancy Rabalais during the 2017 Gulf survey. (Photo courtesy of GulfHypoxia.net)
“The primary driver of the increased nutrient loading is agricultural land use, which is strongly influenced by farm policy,” the report states. The buildup of nutrients results in waters starved of oxygen, destroying the food chain in the area, and killing off shrimp and fish populations—and the industries that depend on them.
If you want to change the size of the dead zone, Rabalais concludes, change the impact of your land use. “Anything that can be done within the agriculture community for best practices and, especially by way of sustainable agriculture would greatly reduce the nitrogen fluxes from the landscape,” Rabalais said…
This article appeared in CIVIL EATS