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Jun 192009


The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is expected to grow this year to between 7,400 and 8,400 square miles, a size roughly equivalent to the state of New Jersey, according to researchers at the University of Michigan.

That means the zone will be among the top three largest on record; the largest oxygen-starved zone reached 8,484 square miles in 2002.

The dead zones are inadvertently man made: In a sort of reverse circle of life, fertilizer and livestock waste runoff from farms and lawns across the United States overfeeds the Mississippi and other rivers with nitrogen, which prompts massive algae growth in the Gulf of Mexico. The algae sinks and is consumed by bacteria, a process that depletes oxygen supplies along the bottom and lower water levels, choking off aquatic plants and animals. Fish, shellfish and other plants die for lack of oxygen (hypoxia).

The phenomenon has been underway for decades, but has reached its largest proportions in recent years.
“The growth of these dead zones is an ecological time bomb,” said Donald Scavia, a professor at the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment and director of the U-M Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute. “Without determined local, regional and national efforts to control them, we are putting major fisheries at risk.”

Scavia’s forecasts also include annual dead zone predictions for the Chesapeake Bay, which this year is expected to see a decrease in the size of the dead zone, though it is due to declining runoff resulting from less area precipitation and not pollution reduction.

The Gulf hypoxia research team is supported by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research and includes scientists from Louisiana State University and the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.

See an animation of how dead zones are created at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website.

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