Dead zones were first noticed the area in the 1970s, and they’ve been growing in size ever since. Based on current conditions, some scientists think that the Gulf of Mexico will experience the second-largest dead zone on record in July.
This summer’s dead zone will be in areas where fishing vessels usually work, meaning fleets will have to spend more on fuel to travel farther to chase fish.
The source of the dead zone
The dead zone is connected to runoff from one of the largest rivers in the world, the Mississippi. Thousands of acres of farms have flooded this year because of what NOAA calls “the abnormally high amount of spring rainfall.” That means there is a lot more water from those fields going straight into the river, which empties into the Gulf.
What happens, Rabalais explains, is that too many dissolved molecules of nitrogen and phosphorus from runoff stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, which fall to the bottom and decompose with bacteria that use up oxygen. That leads to the creation of dead zones.
“This extra amount of water right now, beginning with the floods in April in the Midwest and into May, mean the water will still be high, maybe at an all-time high this year,” Rabalais said.
“It is all a part of how we treat our ecosystem and our consumptive nature,” she said. “It’s all connected to our carbon footprint and the nitrogen used in farming and used to feed animals that we don’t need to eat. It is all tied together with the global economy and now tariffs and the way subsidies are given to farming.”
Not much can be done to stop this from happening this year, but there is something that can be done to prevent problems in the future.
Farmers can create embankments that reduce erosion and retain runoff. They use precision fertilizer that doesn’t run off as easily. They are planting more sustainable crops like perennial wheat grass that has longer roots than corn, keeping the nitrogen and the soils in place.
“These are actions that are better for the environment, and they’re still profitable, sometimes even more profitable,” Rabalais said, and they are better for people’s health. Nitrogen also ends up in drinking water, and that is associated with cancer.
More, though, needs to be done. “I’m an optimist by nature, but that optimism does not cover the weather. This is a long-term trend that is likely to stay around,” she said. “I hope I will be around long enough to see this change.”