DEAD ZONE OF THE GULF OF MEXICO EXPECTED TO BE LARGER THAN AVERAGE

NOAA scientists are forecasting this summer’s Gulf of Mexico hypoxic area or “dead zone” – an area of low to no oxygen that can kill fish and other marine life – to be approximately 6,700 square miles, larger than the long-term average measured size of 5,387 square miles but substantially less than the record of 8,776 square miles set in 2017. The annual prediction is based on U.S. Geological Survey river-flow and nutrient data.
The annual Gulf of Mexico dead zone is primarily caused by excess nutrient pollution from human activities in urban and agricultural areas throughout the Mississippi River watershed. When the excess nutrients reach the Gulf, they stimulate an overgrowth of algae, which eventually die and decompose, depleting oxygen as they sink to the bottom. The resulting low oxygen levels near the bottom of the Gulf cannot support most marine life. Fish, shrimp and crabs often swim out of the area, but animals that are unable to swim or move away are stressed or killed by the low oxygen. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone occurs every summer.
A major factor contributing to this year’s above-average hypoxic zone are the high river flows and nutrient loads delivered to the Gulf this spring, primarily from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers. In May 2020, discharge in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers was about 30% above the long-term average between 1980 and 2019. The USGS estimates that this larger-than average river discharge carried 136,000 metric tons of nitrate and 21,400 metric tons of phosphorus into the Gulf of Mexico in May alone. These nitrate loads were about 2% above the long-term average, and phosphorus loads were about 25% above the long-term average.
The USGS operates more than 3,000 real-time stream gauges, and 35 long-term monitoring sites to measure nutrients in rivers throughout the Mississippi-Atchafalaya watershed. Data from these networks are used to track long-term changes in nutrient inputs to the Gulf and to help build models of nutrient sources and hotspots within the watershed.
(Source: NOAA – Image: Algal bloom at the mouth of the Mississippi river/NASA)

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