New Jersey-sized dead zone envelops Gulf Coast


Oh wait, that headline is based on a blog post I wrote 2 years ago.  Doh!

Our ongoing efforts to wipe out sea life may lack the media-grabbing pizzazz of a Titanic oil spill, but it does not lack the punch.  See, for instance, “Nature Geoscience study concludes ocean dead zones “devoid of fish and seafood” are poised to expand and “remain for thousands of years”).  Or watch coral reef ecologist Jeremy Jackson’s 18-minute TED talk, “How we wrecked the ocean“:

If you have the stomach for it, the hour long version is here (but the slides are blurred).

And here’s my post from 2008 (“More corn ethanol = Bigger Gulf dead zone“):

Some aquatic dead zones are primarily due to global warming, and some are due to fertilizer runoff. In the future the two will combine with acidification to wipe out most ocean life if we don’t change course soon. Now a new study says U.S. corn ethanol policy will aggravate the New Jersey-size (!) area of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico.

As Scientific American explains:

The water in brooks, streams and creeks from Michigan to Puerto Rico carries a heavy load of pollutants, particularly nitrates from fertilizers. These nitrogen and oxygen molecules that crops need to grow eventually make their way into rivers, lakes and oceans, fertilizing blooms of algae that deplete oxygen and leave vast “dead zones” in their wake. There, no fish or typical sea life can survive. And scientists warn that a federal mandate to produce more biofuel may make the situation even worse.

That scientific warning, “Corn-based ethanol production compromises goal of reducing nitrogen export by the Mississippi River,” was published in Proceedings of the National Journal of Sciences (subs. req’d). Here is the abstract:

Corn cultivation in the United States is expected to increase to meet demand for ethanol. Nitrogen leaching from fertilized corn fields to the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River system is a primary cause of the bottom-water hypoxia that develops on the continental shelf of the northern Gulf of Mexico each summer. In this study, we combine agricultural land use scenarios with physically based models of terrestrial and aquatic nitrogen to examine the effect of present and future expansion of corn-based ethanol production on nitrogen export by the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers to the Gulf of Mexico. The results show that the increase in corn cultivation required to meet the goal of 15-36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by the year 2022 suggested by a recent U.S. Senate energy policy would increase the annual average flux of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) export by the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers by 10-34%. Generating 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol by the year 2022 will increase the odds that annual DIN export exceeds the target set for reducing hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico to >95%. Examination of extreme mitigation options shows that expanding corn-based ethanol production would make the already difficult challenges of reducing nitrogen export to the Gulf of Mexico and the extent of hypoxia practically impossible without large shifts in food production and agricultural management.

Turns out oil isn’t the only liquid fuel with harsh consequences for the ecosystem.

For more recent analysis of what we’re doing to ourselves, see

The bottom line is that you can get nonstop high-level media coverage or policymaker interest in quick Titanic disasters, but not humanity’s slow self-destruction.

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7 Responses to New Jersey-sized dead zone envelops Gulf Coast

  1. mike roddy says:

    Keep up the fight, Joe. The ocean problem is underreported, since the media would rather talk about more visual effects like sea level rise. Destruction of ocean life will hit us sooner. One indicator of the danger is that the deniers rarely talk about it, since it’s hard to argue with the data.

  2. Chris Winter says:

    I’ve just finished reading Peter D. Ward’s Under a Green Sky. In my opinion it’s his best book. One of the things that makes it great is Dr. Ward’s passionate warning that we are re-creating the conditions that led to most of the great extinctions of the past: Increasing greenhouse gases melt the icecaps, shutting down ocean circulation. At the end of the process you have a warmer world with less temperature variation, in which feeble winds circulate above a “Canfield Ocean” — stagnant seas filled with no life but microbes emitting copious amounts of hydrogen sulfide to poison life on land.

    Now this cannot happen for hundreds of years. But if we can think in terms of hundreds of years, and we should be able to, the prospect of such an outcome deserves some attention.

  3. Robert Brulle says:

    The good news is that the oil spill hasn’t spread much west of the Mississippi. The bad news is that the area is already pretty much ecologically dead anyway. Now the oil spill can destroy the Gulf east of the Mississippi too.

  4. S.W. Ela says:

    Joe: I can access the full text of the PNAS article you cite.

  5. Jim Galasyn says:

    Chris, watch Jeremy Jackson’s full presentation, Brave New Ocean. He gives the oceans 30 years before they’re dead (i.e., stratified and dominated by microbes).

  6. Russ Finley says:

    A recent article in Nature suggested that global warming may not be our biggest problem:

  7. prokaryote says:

    Study Warns of Crossing Planetary Boundaries

    “The authors make a strong case for their selection of key boundaries,” says the Carnegie Institution’s Christopher Field, “and the proposed locations for the boundaries are conceptually reasonable.” Field said he would not be surprised if other researchers argue for shifting the boundaries based on further research. “But most would agree with the general theme that we are pushing very hard on the Earth system, so hard that we should not be surprised if key parts begin to break.”