A&M researchers find dead zone off island

By Bronwyn Turner
July 4, 2009; The Daily News

Galveston County

The Daily News

Published July 4, 2009

GALVESTON — Researchers from Texas A&M University have fired up a new monitoring system on an offshore wind platform and detected a new “dead zone” in the Gulf south of Galveston.

The size and impact of the zone has not yet been measured, but the low oxygen levels of the area spell danger for marine life. The pocket of water is south of Galveston, about nine nautical miles from shore.

“It has the potential to harm the fishing and harm the shrimping off of Texas,” said Dr. Steve DiMarco, a professor of oceanography in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M. “Other zones like this around the world have led to serious and massive fish kill.”

DiMarco, who has studied the Gulf of Mexico for 16 years and the dead zone areas of the Gulf since 2002, stressed research on the new dead zone is in the early stages.

“From my point of view, I want to know how much of this is a naturally occurring event versus how much of this is man-driven, and if it’s man-driven, what can we do about it,” he said in a telephone interview.

Dead zones are defined as areas in the Gulf of Mexico where seasonal oxygen levels drop too low to support most life in bottom and near-bottom waters. High levels of nutrients and other organic material lead to an overgrowth of algae. The algae sink and decompose, a process that depletes oxygen in the water, creating a hypoxic, or dead, zone.

The cause can be natural; two years ago, a strong flood from the Brazos River set off the chain of event leading to a large area off the Texas coast going low on oxygen.

The new monitoring system will help chart the details of dead zones off the coast of Texas. The series of instruments are strung together on a piece of cable, held up in the water by large ball-shaped flotation devices, and anchored at the bottom with a large weight. The system is strapped to the wind farm platform, protecting it from trawling nets and hurricane-force winds.

This is the state’s first water quality monitoring system to provide hourly updates on water temperature, salinity, oxygen, waves and other information. Data from the platform is sent to Galveston and then relayed instantly to College Station, and posted online, enabling researchers and others to see vital information about conditions in the Gulf of Mexico.

“This is really exciting because we now have a tool out there to answer some of the serious questions about how often this occurs, how long does it last, how bad does it get and how low does the oxygen go,” DiMarco said. “These are the questions that I really, really want to get to and try to tease out and make the environment a better place.”



• The new monitoring system is a collaboration of Wind Energy Systems Technology Inc. of New Iberia, La., Texas General Land Office, Texas Sea Grant College Program, Texas A&M and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

• The data from the new system will be publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System Data Portal, http://tabs.gerg.tamu.edu/hypox.

• One of the largest dead zones ever recorded, estimated between 8,500 to 9,600 square miles, or about the size of New Jersey, is off the Louisiana coast near the Mississippi River.