The Gulf of Mexico Is About to Experience a “Dead Zone” the Size of Connecticut

Midwestern farm fertilizer runnoff is expected to create a massive algae bloom and a biological desert to follow it.

A NOAA vizualization of where the nitrogen comes from that fuels the annual dead zone. <a href="http://www.nnvl.noaa.gov/MediaDetail2.php?MediaID=1062&MediaTypeID=3&ResourceID=104616">NOAA</a>

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


The Gulf of Mexico teems with biodiversity and contains some of the globe’s most productive fisheries. Yet starting in the early 1970s, large swaths of the Gulf began to experience annual dead zones in the late summer and early fall. This year’s will likely be nearly a third larger than normal, about the size of Connecticut, according to a recent report from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and Louisiana State University.

This year’s dead zone will likely be nearly a third larger than normal.

The problem is tied to industrial-scale meat production. To churn out huge amounts chicken, beef, and pork, the meat industry relies on corn as cheap feed. The US grows about a third of the globe’s corn, the great bulk of it in the Midwest, on land that drains into the Mississippi River. Every year, fertilizer runoff from Midwestern farms leaches into the Mississippi and makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Intended to feed the nation’s vast corn crop, this renegade nitrogen instead feeds vast aquatic algae blooms in the early summer. When the algae blooms die and decay, they tie up oxygen from the water underneath. As a result, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization puts it, “habitats that would normally be teeming with life become, essentially, biological deserts.”

Corn farmers typically plant freshly fertilized fields in April, leaving them prone to runoff from May storms. To predict the coming season’s dead zone, the Louisiana researchers looked at nitrogen loads coming into the Gulf in May, using NOAA data.

They’re expecting an unusually big one this year. And their report amounts to a de facto rebuke to the federal effort to address the problem: The Environmental Protection Agency’s Gulf Hypoxia Task Force, a largely voluntary effort to reduce fertilizer pollution in the Mississippi watershed. If this year’s dead zone turns out to be as large expected—about 6,800 square miles—it will be more than three times larger than EPA task force’s maximum target of around 2,000 square miles. As for the goal of reducing the amount of nitrogen streaming into the Gulf? “No progress has been made,” the Louisiana researchers bluntly stated.

Environmental Working Group’s Emily Cassidy adds:

The big river’s nitrogen concentration is nearing its highest level since 1997, when record-keeping began. According to the U.S. Geological Survey the river’s nitrogen concentrations have been above normal  every month this year.  

She also notes that fertilizer runoff does more than blot out sea life in this crucial and beleaguered ecosystem. It also fouls people’s drinking water in cities throughout the Midwest, including Des Moines, Columbus, and Toledo.

 

 

 

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate