By Dan Shapley
Spurred By Fertilizer Runoff, Lifeless Water The Size Of New Jersey Dan Shapley / News Editor
The dead zone of lifeless water in the Gulf of Mexico could exceed the largest size ever recorded, in 27 years of monitoring, a team of federal and university scientists said today. At 8,500 square miles -- roughly the size of New Jersey -- it has the potential to be more than 75% larger than the 4,800-square mile average recorded since 1990, and more than 25 % bigger than last year's 6,662-square mile zone. A series of hurricanes or tropical storms could disrupt the trend and alleviate the low-oxygen conditions by causing a rigorous stirring of the water, but in the absence of storms, the dead zone is expected to persist. It is caused primarily by runoff from the Mississippi River valley. As farms use chemical fertilizers to bolster the productiveness of soil, excess nitrogen runs off into streams, which flow into the river and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. There, it feeds massive algal blooms that starve the water of oxygen, making huge areas inhospitable to life. It is a drain on otherwise productive and profitable fisheries in the region. The levels of nitrogen flowing into the Gulf of Mexico has tripled in 50 years, with the advent of modern farming techniques. With the boom in corn driven by government ethanol subsidies, the United States has planted a record amount of corn, leading to leading profits for chemical companies and inflated prices for a range of consumer goods, as corn is diverted from food and feed to fuel uses. The forecast for a record dead zone is based on nitrate loads measured in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers in May, according to a press release from the scientists, affiliated with the National Oceanographic And Atmospheric Administration, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, and Louisiana State University. The increase in nitrate loads has come despite a decrease in overall flow of the two rivers, suggesting that there is more nitrogen flowing into the system. "I am anticipating a historically large hypoxic zone this summer because the nitrate loading this May, a critical month influencing the size of the area, was very high," said LSU's R. Eugene Turner, the lead researcher. "The difference between 2007 and 2002 cannot be explained by increased river flow. The riverine flow in May 2007 was 77 percent of the May 2002 discharge, but it contained 35 percent more nitrogen. The relatively high nitrate loading may be due to more intensive farming of more land, including crops used for biofuels, unique weather patterns, or changing farming practices. For more information, see the Gulf of Mexico Ecosystems & Hypoxia Assessment
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