Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone

Dave Ruigh, Mother Earth News Editorial Intern
August/September 2006
Add to My MSN

Nitrogen from fertilizer runoff causes huge dead zones in the oceans where fish and other marine life can't survive.

Content Tools
In the Gulf of Mexico, several miles off the Louisiana coast, lies one of the world's largest 'dead zones' ? oxygen-deprived areas devoid of all marine life. Researchers predict that this summer, the dead zone will grow to cover nearly 6,700 square miles, an area roughly half the size of Maryland, and far larger than its size in recent years of 4,800 square miles.

Worst of all, the dead zone is human-made: runoff from farms in the Midwest adds as much as 7.8 million pounds of nitrate fertilizer to the Mississippi River and its tributaries each day during peak loading periods, which then runs downriver and empties into the Gulf. As it does with plants grown on land, the nitrogen causes algae and plankton in the area to flourish, using all available oxygen in the water. The result is hypoxia, an oxygen depleted dead zone in which fish and other marine life simply cannot survive.

According to a study done by the Environmental Working Group, much of the fertilizer runoff comes from heavily subsidized farms in the Corn Belt, an area that includes Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. Corn requires the highest fertilizer input of any major crop, and about 45 percent of all commodity support payments in that area go to its production. The money typically spent on taxpayer-funded farm subsidies in the area dwarfs the amount spent on efforts to protect water quality and conservation by a ratio of more than 500 to 1.

To learn more about the dead zone, visit the Science Museum of Minnesota's interactive site, or the Mississippi River Basin Alliance.

Post a comment below.


4/18/2013 7:59:34 PM

4/18/2013 7:59:34 PM

MIKE withheld
11/9/2006 12:00:00 AM
I found this story to be both eye opening, and yet, sadly, redundant. While I applaud your efforts to get this information "out there", I can tell you one thing for certain, Mid-westerners aren't hearing it. I live in rural southern Minnesota, and really wish I had better news but I just don't see it getting better. And now, with Ethanol on the horizon? I'm not a farmer, but living in rural Minnesota you get quite an agricultural education, like it or not! This fall has seen more sludge and hog waste being dumped on these fields out here than I've ever seen. Looks like they're preparing for big time production next year. Wish I had better news.

AARON Kibbie
8/14/2006 12:00:00 AM
Sorry to hear you lost your home to the hurricane. I hope things are going well for you now. It is so sad to hear of the negative impact of our society when there is so much we could be doing for good. Best wishes to you.

L Sart
8/14/2006 12:00:00 AM
I no longer live on the Gulf Coast due to the hurricane but I will say that just about all the dead fish looked to be saltwater catfish type and other bottom feeder type , also the wind blows from the south and blows the filth wash up on the shores all along the Gulf Coast shores of Texas & Louisiana , that seems to be a holding stop place of all the filth and garbage thats dumped out in the ocean. It took a tractor with a front loader to remove and pile up all the dead fish. The Gulf can really have warm water , when you add the trash filth and waste thats dumped into the water along with all the dead fish... it's a perfect breeding ground for bacteria !!!!

L Sart
8/13/2006 12:00:00 AM
I dont know why this happens to the fish but I have seen the Gulf Beach on the Louisiana side , there was so many dead stinking fish on the beach that ,I could not walk along it. There was garbage and trash everywhere, like hospital waste stuff that had washed ashore along with the dead fish . The biggest problem I saw was "MAN" and not fertilizer as I wonder how a fish could swim with all that garbage in their water.

AARON Kibbie
8/13/2006 12:00:00 AM
I don't know if that issue has anything to do with The Dead Zone. However, the problem is the same, MAN. Chemical fertilizers are what is causing TDZ which are manufactured and distributed by man. What caused the issue on the Louisiana side may or not be related, usually fish stay away from TDZ entirely would you be willing to find out and post the information you discover?

mike noland
8/12/2006 12:00:00 AM
I agree that the root cause is from fertilizer run off. But why the increase in size that the author makes note of? At 6,700 square miles we are almost matching the historical 7K that has been stated as the past recorded high.It is goining to take a drastic change in America's political climate before our environmental crises is properly addressed.I am still very curios about the impact of Catrinia on the Gulf's water quality. Given the massive flooding surely there had to be a significant back flush into the Gulf of Mexico?m noland

AARON Kibbie
8/12/2006 12:00:00 AM
In my opinion crop rotation, and natural fertilzers/compost is the way to go. It is true it will take a major change in the way our country does 'business' to repair the damage done. The best we can do is make our opinons known and vote in a manner consistent with our beliefs. Sorry about the broked up post but there is a 500 word limit and thanks for the conversation! Happy voting! - Aaron

AARON Kibbie
8/11/2006 12:00:00 AM
In response comment 1: The Dead Zone is not caused by the alge and phytoplankton blooms, it is caused by their decomposition. As the blooms die, they drop to the ocean floor and decompose, using up the oxygen of the deeper water. The stratification of the water that occurs during the summer in the Gulf prevents the deepest water from becoming re-oxygenated. The Dead Zone has been as large as 7,000 square miles in the past.In response to commment 2: The Dead Zone does not have enough nutrients in it to support oxygen producing alge or phytoplankton, that is why it dies and sinks there. What we need to do is stop using chemical fertilizers.

mike noland
8/10/2006 12:00:00 AM
I wonder if the run off pollution from hurricane Catrinia, had any impact on the increase of dead zone size. I am 'surprised' that there has not been anything in the news.....This is a dramatic increase that I would guess had something to do with the hurricane. We haven't grown a notable increase in corn, have we?M Noland

Douglas Wolferman
8/8/2006 12:00:00 AM
I was always under the assumption that algae produced oxygen, not deplete it. If the case may be, then we have an over-abundance of CO2 in the water. Why not try to plant some CO2 loving plants that would benefit from the nitrogen and also produce O2?

Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 66% Off the Cover Price

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is the guide to living — as one reader stated — “with little money and abundant happiness.” Every issue is an invaluable guide to leading a more sustainable life, covering ideas from fighting rising energy costs and protecting the environment to avoiding unnecessary spending on processed food. You’ll find tips for slashing heating bills; growing fresh, natural produce at home; and more. MOTHER EARTH NEWS helps you cut costs without sacrificing modern luxuries.

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet’s natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That’s why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.00 for 6 issues.