Gulf Of Mexico's 2017 "Dead Zone" Could Be Largest On Record


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

Agriculture and wastewater are the main culprits here. jelloyd/Shutterstock

Actions have consequences, and this is no better illustrated than when it comes to human actions on the natural world. One particularly striking example can be found in the Gulf of Mexico, where an oxygen-starved “dead zone” can be directly attributed to our behavior.

Pollution – particularly agricultural practices using nitrate- and phosphorus-heavy treatments – runs off into lakes, ponds, rivers, and ultimately the sea. This proves to be a boon for the phytoplankton that are scattered across the surface of various bodies of water, whose population numbers explode as a result.


These so-called blooms upset the balance of the food chains in the region. With more algae alive than ever before, more ultimately end up dying than ever before too – and when they sink to the seafloor, the bacteria that break them down use up more dissolved oxygen than ever before. This cycle results in a huge drawdown of oceanic oxygen, which triggers a mass die-off in larger marine life.

This condition, known as “hypoxia”, can create a dead zone if it’s expansive enough, and one has existed within the Gulf of Mexico for several decades now. Research by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have revealed that it’s been getting gradually worse, but over the last few years it’s stabilized to be an area roughly matching that of Connecticut.

How dead zones are created. futurityvideo via YouTube

However, this year, based on the agrochemical and wastewater runoff expected in the summer months, NOAA predicts that the dead zone will expand to encompass an area that’s about the size of New Jersey. That’s a 57 percent increase in just one year, and this is a conservative estimate.


As highlighted by the Washington Post, another prediction by researchers based in Louisiana says that the dead zone will actually be even larger than the NOAA’s suggesting – almost the size of Hawaii. If this is true, then it will be the most expansive dead zone the Gulf of Mexico has ever seen.

These are only predictions at this stage, but it’s safe to say that they are likely to be spot on. Each year, after the numbers are crunched in the early summer, scientists set off on patrol boats to physically measure the size of the dead zone – and their estimates have always been unnervingly (or perhaps reassuringly) accurate.

In any case, this shocking data suggests that nowhere near enough is being done to sort out this persistent pollution problem – and it cannot be overstated how much this dead zone affects us. We rely on fishing to keep fed, and if this dead zone continues to proliferate, then we’ll be in a world of trouble in the near-future.


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