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Whatever you do: don’t drink the water!

Aug 07, 2008
By FLYP Staff

Every year, a dead zone forms in the Gulf of Mexico as nitrogen from fertilizer used throughout the Midwest washes down the Mississippi River. More nitrogen in the water encourages the growth of more algae, zooplankton eat the algae and the algae excretes organic matter that decays and depletes the oxygen in the water. No oxygen, no life: fish and other marine life either move away or die.

Because of the massive flooding in Iowa and Illinois earlier this summer, the dead zone this year is estimated to be 8,000 square miles—bigger than the state of New Jersey, and tied for the second largest since scientists began measurements in 1985.

In a press release, the Louisiana State University Marine Consortium scientists who measured the zone this year (PDF) said that “the nitrogen loading to the Gulf of Mexico in May of this year was 37 percent higher than 2007 and the highest since measurements began in 1970. The intensive farming of more land, including crops used for biofuels, has definitely contributed to this high nitrogen loading rate.”

Ironically, only the violence of Hurricane Dolly seems to have prevented this year’s dead zone from getting even bigger.

But this isn’t just a problem in the Gulf. Smaller dead zones are regularly forming off the coast of Washington and Oregon, as well as along the entire Atlantic coast. A team of scientists from the World Research Institute has identified about 415 such zones around the world.

Nitrogen flow is one of the planetary boundaries discussed by the scientists who gathered in Sweden last month by the Tällberg Foundation. As Swedish scientist Johan Rockström told FLYP, it is one of the boundaries that has already been dangerously exceeded. And, if increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere lead to more violent storms and more flooding—which most scientists seem to accept as a given—then more nitrogen is likely to end up in the Mississippi and the Gulf.

And that will mean more dead zones.

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Scott — great question. As the article points out, nitrogen from farms is a big contributor to the dead zone. (Farmers apply fertilizers and some if it runs off. This happens in suburban lawns and golf courses, too etc.) The problem is that in contrast to a sewage treatment plant, there are few legal controls on these dispersed forms of pollution — farmers don’t have to get a permit saying how much N they can release, and there are few legal tools to force reductions. Since there is a strong economic incentive to put a lot on, they naturally keep forging ahead. (I simplify — with N fertilizer prices higher because of high energy costs, some farmers are cutting back.) We are working with an incentives-and-education system for this type of pollution, and as you can see, there are downsides to this.

Robin O’Malley
Nov 12, 2008

I’m an ignorant when it comes to global/environmental issues…but I’m trying to change that. Are there no US laws that regulate at least the dead zones in/on our borders?

Scott Chappell
Oct 10, 2008

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