Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Gulf Dead Zone Bigger Than Expected

2021_SW_BDO_2021-08-01-1200x599 (1).jpg
Researchers find that this year’s Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone is larger than expected.

The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is bigger this summer than scientists had forecasted. Researchers have just returned from their annual trip to the mouth of the Mississippi River and say extra runoff is the reason.

The dead zone is a huge hypoxic area where excess nitrogen, largely from fertilizer used on farms in the Midwest, causes algal blooms that deplete the water of oxygen, which kills plants and animals or causes them to flee.

The average hypoxic zone over the past five years is 5,380 square miles.

Scientists say this year’s dead zone, which is more than 6,000 square miles — ten times the size of Lake Pontchartrain — was fueled by fertilizer and polluted runoff from farms that drain into the Mississippi River.

Louisiana State University scientist Nancy Rabalais has studied the issue for nearly 40 years and said climate change is making the problem worse.

“With more and earlier precipitation in the upper part (of the Mississippi River basin) and more snow melt, which generates more fresh water off of the land and into the Gulf, we also know that the temperatures will increase,” she said. All of these factors contribute to warming waters and exacerbating the dead zone.

In a press call, Biden Administration officials said they are looking for more funding to help farmers reduce runoff.

A federal task force was established in 1997 to bring together state, local and federal partners in an effort to decrease runoff and eliminate the dead zone.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture and co-chair of the Hypoxia Task Force, Mike Naig, said progress is being made. “We have technical experts who are working alongside public and private partners, farmers and landowners, and municipalities to implement locally-led water quality projects,” he said. “We know that changes on the land lead to positive changes in the water, and these investments benefit our local communities and our neighbors downstream.”

The federal government, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has set aside millions of dollars for state governments to incentivize runoff reduction.

The task force sets specific targets to reduce the size of the dead zone, but this year it’s three times the size they’ve been hoping for. Critics say this is evidence that the task force isn’t doing its job.

Matt Rota, policy director for the environmental advocacy group Healthy Gulf, criticized the lack of progress.

“Two things are clear,” Rota wrote in a statement, “We can’t keep doing the same thing and solely rely on voluntary measures. And we need more money to support reductions.”

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

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

👋 Looks like you could use more news. Sign up for our newsletters.

* indicates required
New Orleans Public Radio News
New Orleans Public Radio Info