Gulf of Mexico’s oxygen-starved ‘dead zone’ approaches record size

The Mississippi River watershed drains 1.245 million square miles including all or parts of 31 U.S. states and 2 Canadian provinces. The map illustrates how runoff from farms and cities drains into the Mississippi delivering

USA scientists say an area of oxygen-depleted water in the Gulf of Mexico, known as the "dead zone", will reach a near-record size this season.

Storms before last year's mapping cruise reduced that hypoxic zone to about 2,720 square miles (7,040 square kilometers), about 40% the average size that had been predicted, and among the smallest recorded. The largest gulf dead zone ever recorded-8,776 square miles-occurred in 2017.

The forecast was released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which funds the scientists' work, and is based on U.S. Geological Survey river flow and nutrient data.

According to the NOAA, a dead zone the size of New Jersey has been identified in the Gulf of Mexico.

By posing a significant threat to regional marine life, the pollution that causes the gulf dead zone jeopardizes the tens of billions of dollars generated by commercial fishing in the area.

Nitrogen and phosphorous from the Mississippi River watershed fertilizes the Gulf's surface waters to create large amounts of algal biomass, according to experts.

This contributed to the active growth of algae along the coast of Louisiana and Texas, which are then decomposed and "pulling" oxygen from the environment. The five-year average is 5,770 square miles. There is another annual dead zone in the mid-Atlantic's Chesapeake Bay.

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While nutrient inputs to the Gulf of Mexico vary from year to year because of natural swings in precipitation and discharge, USGS also tracks longer-term gradual changes in nitrate and phosphorus loading into the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River.

The annually recurring Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone is primarily caused by excess nutrient pollution from human activities, such as urbanization and agriculture, occurring throughout the Mississippi River watershed.

A rush of spring rain feeding into the MS is what's expected to push 2019's zone to a near-record size.

Scientists had said earlier that widespread flooding made a large dead zone likely this year.

'The bottom line is that we will never reach the dead zone reduction target of 1,900 square miles until more serious actions are taken to reduce the loss of Midwest fertilizers into the Mississippi River system'.

Rabalais has been measuring the hypoxic zone since 1985.

Fish and shrimp and other "swimming" organisms can leave the area in search of a better habitat, but clams, oysters and slow-moving crustaceans (including crabs) aren't so lucky.

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