Gulf of Mexico dead zone not expected to shrink anytime soon

March 22, 2018, University of Waterloo
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Achieving water quality goals for the Gulf of Mexico may take decades, according to findings by researchers at the University of Waterloo.

The results, which appear in Science, suggest that policy goals for reducing the size of the northern Gulf of Mexico's dead zone may be unrealistic, and that major changes in agricultural and river management practices may be necessary to achieve the desired improvements in water quality.

The transport of large quantities of from rivers and streams across the North American corn belt has been linked to the development of a large dead zone in the northern Gulf of Mexico, where massive algal blooms lead to oxygen depletion, making it difficult for marine life to survive.

"Despite the investment of large amounts of money in recent years to improve quality, the area of last year's dead zone was more than 22,000 km2—about the size of the state of New Jersey," said Kimberly Van Meter, lead author of the paper and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Waterloo.

Using more than two centuries of agricultural data, the scientists show that nitrogen has been accumulating in soils and groundwater over years of intensive agricultural production and will continue to make its way to the coast for decades.

Water quality has become increasingly impaired in the northern Gulf of Mexico since the 1950s, largely due to both intensive livestock production and the widespread use of commercial fertilizers across the Mississippi River Basin. Manure and fertilizer are rich in nitrogen, a nutrient that boosts crop production, but when present in excess can pose a threat to both human health and to aquatic ecosystems.

"We are seeing long time lags between the adoption of conservation measures by farmers and any measurable improvements in ," said Prof. Nandita Basu, senior author of the study.

Modelling results from the current work show that even under best-case scenarios, where effective are immediately implemented, it will take on the order of 30 years to deplete the accumulated excess nitrogen currently stored within the agricultural landscape.

"This is not just a problem in the Mississippi River Basin," says Basu, an associate professor cross-appointed between the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth and Environmental Sciences. "As the need for intensive agricultural production continues to grow, nitrogen legacies are also increasing, creating a long-term problem for coastal habitats around the world."

The research team includes Prof. Philippe Van Cappellen, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Ecohydrology and a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

The group is currently extending their analysis to phosphorus, a major driver of in the Great Lakes and other inland waters.

Explore further: Fertilizer applied to fields today will pollute water for decades

More information: K.J. Van Meter el al., "Legacy nitrogen may prevent achievement of water quality goals in the Gulf of Mexico," Science (2018). science.sciencemag.org/lookup/ … 1126/science.aar4462

Related Stories

Recommended for you

A glimpse into future oceans

December 11, 2018

Something peculiar is happening in the azure waters off the rocky cliffs of Ischia, Italy. There, streams of gas-filled volcanic bubbles rising up to the surface are radically changing life around them by making seawater ...

Sierra snowpack could drop significantly by end of century

December 11, 2018

A future warmer world will almost certainly feature a decline in fresh water from the Sierra Nevada mountain snowpack. Now a new study by the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) that ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

chuck_in_st_paul
4 / 5 (1) Mar 22, 2018
this is not just a Gulf issue. Have you ever been to the lakes in Wisconsin? By June most of them are already Kelly Green with algae growth. It's really a shame as there are many really nice lakes in the state. Minnesota is nearly as bad. It's all due to farm run-off of fertilizers.

Whoever comes up with a cheap effective neutralizer for this run-off issue will be the next billionaire and I'll gladly contribute by purchasing.
MarsBars
1 / 5 (1) Mar 23, 2018
this is not just a Gulf issue... Whoever comes up with a cheap effective neutralizer for this run-off issue will be the next billionaire and I'll gladly contribute by purchasing.

There will be no "cheap effective neutralizer for this run-off issue". It is a global issue, and will require a global change in agricultural practices and decades of time to remedy.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.