Summer weather brings dead zone to life in Gulf

May 27, 2019 GMT

Summer doesn’t technically begin until June 22, but for most of us the Memorial Day weekend was the real kickoff. And with the temperatures getting a little hotter each day, it’s time for those rituals that coastal residents have been dealing with for countless summers — backyard barbecues, more time at the beach … and a big “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

That last one is certainly an unwelcome visitor every summer, but it’s as unavoidable as mosquitoes. The National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science announced that this year’s widespread flooding inland will likely create an even larger oxygen-deprived dead zone in Gulf waters fairly soon.


The phenomenon is even more unfortunate because it’s preventable. The zone forms when nitrogen and phosphorus from farms and lawns washes off and starts draining south, mostly along the Mississippi River. When that soupy mixture hits the Gulf, the nutrients feed algae and plankton, which die and fall to the bottom. As those microscopic creatures decompose, they remove oxygen from the water.

Some marine creatures such as fish and shrimp can move to better waters, but starfish and other bottom-dwellers die. And with large dead zones, even fish sometimes can’t avoid them. The consequences of something like this ripple up through the food chain, eventually affecting fish that commercial and recreational anglers go after.

Last year’s dead zone was more than 2,700 square miles, and this year’s is expected to be much larger. In some years, researchers have even run out of funds before they can fully map just how large the dead zone was. Scientists also believe that more chemicals are being put into the Gulf each year, slightly more nitrogen but considerably more phosphorus.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 showed that events like this can have long-lasting effects on life in the Gulf. The waters appear to be so vast and deep that nothing humans do can harm them. But that oil spill devastated several species that are still struggling to recover.

The solution to all this is applying fewer chemicals on farms and fields up north. It seems insurmountable, but farmers and landowners are buying and using more phosphorus and nitrogen than they need. Dialing back is in their best interests too.

For now, about all coastal residents can do is hope the zone isn’t too large every year. Ironically, hurricanes stir up Gulf waters considerably and replenish oxygen levels, but that’s a solution to one problem that brings many others.