NOAA-supported scientists found a large Gulf of Mexico oxygen-free or hypoxic “dead” zone, but not as large as had been predicted. Measuring 5,840 square miles, an area the size of Connecticut, the 2013 Gulf dead zone indicates nutrients from the Mississippi River watershed are continuing to affect the nation’s commercial and recreational marine resources in the Gulf.
“A near-record area was expected because of wet spring conditions in the Mississippi watershed and the resultant high river flows which deliver large amounts of nutrients,” said Nancy Rabalais, Ph.D. executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), who led the July 21-28 survey cruise. “But nature’s wind-mixing events and winds forcing the mass of low oxygen water towards the east resulted in a slightly above average bottom footprint.”
Hypoxia is fueled by nutrient runoff from agricultural and other human activities in the watershed. These nutrients stimulate an overgrowth of algae that sinks, decomposes and consumes most of the oxygen needed to support life. Normally the low or no oxygen area is found closer to the Gulf floor as the decaying algae settle towards the bottom. This year researchers found many areas across the Gulf where oxygen conditions were severely low at the bottom and animals normally found at the seabed were swimming at the surface.
This is in contrast to 2012, when drought conditions resulted in the fourth smallest dead zones on record, measuring 2,889 square miles, an area slightly larger than Delaware. The largest previous dead zone was in 2002, encompassing 8,481 square miles. The smallest recorded dead zone measured 15 square miles in 1988. The average size of the dead zone over the past five years has been 5,176 square miles, more than twice the 1,900 square mile goal set by the Gulf of Mexico / Mississippi River Watershed Nutrient Task Force in 2001 and reaffirmed in 2008.