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What is the Dead Zone?
The Mississippi River dumps one billion liters of water into the Gulf, water that carries huge amounts of fertilizer from surrounding farms. At its largest, the Dead Zone spans 8500 square miles, approximately the size of Massachusetts.
How does this affect the Gulf of Mexico?
Nitrates, the active ingredient in fertilizer, enter the water and nourish the growth of algae leading to algal blooms. When these algae die, they sink to the ocean floor and decay. Bacteria feeds on the decayed algae and consume a lot of oxygen in the process, leaving the area hypoxic (devoid of oxygen) which in turn leaves the water too drained of oxygen to support life. As a result, anything that can’t swim will die.
When does this happen?
It’s been happening for over thirty years and the hypoxic state begins each spring when the influx of nitrates is highest and disappears each autumn when ocean currents bring oxygen-rich waters back.
Why should I care?
Animals have to leave to find other waters and some of these waters may be less hospitable. For example, it may force shrimp to move into colder, deeper water where they grow and reproduce more slowly or it may force them to move into more shallow waters where they are in danger of being predated. This could lead to an extinction of the shrimp population in the area, which in turn will take away many of the jobs and people’s livelihoods will be affected.
Well, what can be done about it?
Estimates show that the Dead Zone should be reduced to about 2000 square miles in order to dispose of the threat to the shrimp population and to the fishing industry that relies on shellfish. To achieve this goal, we need to cut nitrogen runoff by as much as forty percent. In the late 1990s, scientists drafted a plan that would cut the nitrogen by 30% by installing better drainage systems and constructing new wetlands in the Mississippi River basin. These wetlands would trap the nitrates and turn them into nitrogen gas which escapes into the atmosphere. The federal government and eight states along the Mississippi River agreed to put this plan into action, but the plan’s momentum has died since the beginning of George W. Bush’s administration.
What can I do?
Write to the federal government and let them know that you feel this is an issue that should be considered much more seriously than it has been. Write to your senators and congressmen today!