Gulf champion Nancy Rabalais gets her due

By Editorial page staff, The Times-Picayune
19 September 2011

Marine ecologist Nancy Rabalais has been mapping the dead zone that forms off Louisiana’s coast for 27 years, work that has been critical in understanding and focusing attention on this important environmental issue. The Heinz Family Foundation has named her a 2011 recipient of a $100,000 Heinz award.


nancy_rabalais.jpgMarine scientist Nancy Rabalais is the recipient of a $100,000 Heinz Award.

The award honors those who’ve made extraordinary contributions to the environment, and Dr. Rabalais is certainly a worthy recipient.

Foundation chair Teresa Heinz, who called dead zones one of the most significant problems facing oceans, noted that Dr. Rabalais’ "hard work, research and courage,” are behind much of what’s known about the phenomenon.

"She simultaneously advances the state of our knowledge of the causes and consequences of dead zones and helps develop public and private responses to those challenges,” Ms. Heinz said.

Indeed, Dr. Rabalais’ research triggered the formation of the federal-state Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Nutrient Task Force Hypoxia Plan, which has the goal of reducing the size of the dead zone.

The dead zone is caused by nutrient runoff — mostly from agriculture — that enters the Gulf via the Mississippi River and fuels huge blooms of phytoplankton. When those organisms die, their decomposition depletes oxygen in the water, chasing away fish and killing bottom-dwelling creatures.

Dr. Rabalais, who serves as director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, leads annual research cruises that delineate the size of the dead zone each summer. "I’m out there slinging the mud with them, measuring things at 2 in the morning,” she said.

The dead zone has been as large as 8,400 square miles. This year, Dr. Rabalais and her team found a 6,765-square-mile area of low oxygen west of the Mississippi River, larger than the state of Connecticut and also larger than average. They also found another hypoxic area east of the river.

Dr. Rabalais plans to use the Heinz award, which is unrestricted, to pay for research expenses that aren’t covered by other grants, such as travel and equipment.

That’s encouraging. Dr. Rabalais’ research has been critical to understanding what she has called the "chronic stressor” in the Gulf. Her continued efforts are needed to pressure states and the federal government to address the nutrient pollution that is the cause.