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Gulf Dead Zone Smaller Than Expected

Though smaller than anticipated, the dead zone in the Gulf is still much larger than both the federal goal and the five-year average.

This year’s dead zone is the eighth largest on record in the Gulf of Mexico, though it’s size could have been impacted by Hurricane Barry last month.

The dead zone is an area of hypoxic, or low-oxygen, conditions that forms at the bottom of the Gulf every year. Fertilizers, which wash off of Midwestern agricultural fields and down the Mississippi River, fuel algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico. As the algae dies the water loses oxygen, killing fish and other sea creatures.

This year, the dead zone measured almost 6,952 square miles -- a little smaller than the size of New Jersey. The total is smaller than the 7,829 square miles forecasted in June, but still ranks as the eighth largest dead zone on record.

Scientists collect measurements in the Gulf of Mexico.

Dr. Nancy Rabalais, professor at LSU and the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) led the study. She says this year’s dead zone might have been bigger if Hurricane Barry hadn’t churned up the water last month -- which happened to be just before the research was done.

“I would predict that one week from now the area will be larger than it is right now,” said Rabalais, “but we can only spend so much time on the water [taking measurements].”

This year’s dead zone is more than three times the federal goal, which is to reduce the size of the dead zone to 1,900 square miles.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Walton Family 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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