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This Year The Gulf Of Mexico's 'Dead Zone' Is The Largest On Record

A barge sits in Missouri on the Mississippi River before it heads downstream to the Gulf of Mexico.
File: Abbie Fentress Swanson
/
Harvest Public Media
A barge sits in Missouri on the Mississippi River before it heads downstream to the Gulf of Mexico.

Chemical runoff from Midwest farm fields is contributing to the largest so-called ‘dead zone’ on record in the Gulf of Mexico.

Scientists have mapped the size of the oxygen-deprived region in the Gulf since 1985. This year’s is estimated at more than 8,700 square miles, which is about the size of New Jersey.

The amount and timing of rainfall contribute to the washing of chemicals from farm fields throughout the watershed into the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf.

Robert Magnien, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says flows of nutrients this year were greater than normal.

“So in years like this with a lot of precipitation and higher than normal flows,” Magnien says, “that carries more nutrients into the Gulf of Mexico to fuel the algal bloom, which eventually decompose and rob the water of oxygen.”

The resulting hypoxic region has biological and economic implications for the region, such as certain fish being deprived of their primary food sources and potentially smaller shrimp available for market. But Magnien says in recent years the problem has gained much more attention, which he’s hopeful will translate to better nutrient management in the future.

“We’re over the hump in terms of what the problem is and what needs to be done,” he says, “and now we’re on to the really difficult job of reducing sources from, especially land runoff.”

Magnien says some solutions are available and need to be more widely adopted, such as precise use of nitrogen and wider adoption of cover crops that keep nutrients on the land.

“And, possibly, new technologies that will help with precision application of nutrients and prevention of runoff events,” he says.

The measurement is a blow to – from farmers to regulators to environmentalists – that hoped their ongoing efforts throughout the watershed would reduce the size of the “dead zone.”

Copyright 2020 Harvest Public Media. To see more, visit .

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.