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Tulane Awards $1 Million To Help Reduce Gulf Dead Zone

Travis Lux
The Adapt-N team poses with their $1 million check.

Every summer, a "dead zone" forms in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s an area where the oxygen is so low that aquatic mammals can't survive. This year the dead zone was the biggest on record.


Tulane University has awarded $1 million to a company to help shrink it.


The dead zone is caused by large amounts of nitrogen in the Mississippi River. Most of the nitrogen comes from agricultural fertilizers, which drain into the river from all over the country.

So, if you want to shrink the dead zone, you’ve got to decrease the nitrogen.


A couple of years ago, Tulane launched a contest to do just that. Now, they’ve announced their winner — Adapt-N. It’s basically a computer program that helps corn farmers use less fertilizer. Less fertilizer means less nitrogen in the river, and less nitrogen means a slightly smaller dead zone.


Harold van Es is a soil science professor at Cornell University and helped create it.


"It’s all in the cloud. All cloud based," he says about the program. "You just get a subscription, basically."


It works like this: A farmer punches in a few data points — like when they planted their corn or what kind of soil they have, and the program cross-references those data points with other existing data — like weather information. It does a bunch of math, and in the end, spits out a number telling them how much fertilizer they should use.


Van Es says it should save farmers money, too, since they’ll spend less money on fertilizer.


Adapt-N will be available for farmers next year.


Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and local listeners.

As Coastal Reporter, Travis Lux covers flood protection, coastal restoration, infrastructure, the energy and seafood industries, and the environment. In this role he's reported on everything from pipeline protests in the Atchafalaya swamp, to how shrimpers cope with low prices. He had a big hand in producing the series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?, which examined how prepared New Orleans is for a future with more extreme weather. In 2017, Travis co-produced two episodes of TriPod: New Orleans at 300 examining New Orleans' historic efforts at flood protection. One episode, NOLA vs Nature: The Other Biggest Flood in New Orleans History, was recognized with awards from the Public Radio News Directors and the New Orleans Press Club. His stories often find a wider audience on national programs, too, like NPR's Morning Edition, WBUR's Here and Now, and WHYY's The Pulse.

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