Gulf Dead Zone Escapes Record for Now

By Robert Morley
August 5, 2008–From
« Jellyfish, known to thrive in damaged environments, are thriving throughout the world’s oceans.
(Jose Luis Roca/AFP/Getty Images)

The “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico escaped setting a new size record this year. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the dead zone was only slightly smaller than the last record, which was set in 2002. Troubles in the Gulf are just one drop within an ocean full of environmental problems.

What is happening to our oceans?

For those not familiar, the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” is the ocean area immediately adjacent to the mouth of the Mississippi River. It is called the dead zone because each year thousands of square miles turn into a virtual underwater desert void of oxygen—and, consequently, also of fish, shrimp, crabs and other complex marine life.

Scientists say the problem stems from the Mississippi River system, which dumps increasing concentrations of fertilizers and other organic waste into the ocean. When the agricultural run-off reaches the Gulf, the nitrogen ignites a massive algae bloom. The oceans turn green and brown as different algae species multiply exponentially. Then, when all the algae die, or are excreted after being eaten, the organic matter starts to decompose. As it decomposes, oxygen is sucked from the water, creating an area of hypoxia in which most organisms cannot live.

This year, researchers expected the dead zone to eclipse the record 8,500 square miles observed in 2002 because of the massive rains that flooded the Mississippi drainage basin and dumped extraordinary amounts of nitrates into the Gulf. Nitrate concentrations were measured at 37 percent above last year and were the highest since data began being collected in 1970. Ironically, it was only the arrival of Hurricane Dolly, which stirred up the water, limiting the spread of the dead zone, that prevented a new record.

That is not to say the dead zone effects were not distinct. Water samples from near the bottom of the water column are filled with hydrogen sulfide and “smell like rotten eggs,” says Nancy Rabalais, a lead scientist studying the phenomena. Rabalais has been studying the zone for decades and says it has roughly doubled in size since 1985.

Making matters worse, says Eugene Turner, a professor of coastal ecology at Louisiana State University, is that not all the organic matter on the bottom decays in any given year. That means that even if the amount of fertilizer entering the Gulf stays the same or slightly decreases, the Gulf could still experience greater levels of hypoxia in following years.

But the Gulf of Mexico isn’t the only area of the ocean that is experiencing problems.

According to the International Herald Tribune, rising numbers of jellyfish in coastal areas could be a signal the ocean’s health is deteriorating. Although there are no global databases on jellyfish populations, the number of people seeking treatment for stings has doubled since 2005 in Australia. In Barcelona, during just a couple of hours last week, 300 people were treated for stings, and 11 were taken to hospital after a beach became inundated with the stinging creatures.

Scientists say the most likely causes of the apparent explosion in the number of jellyfish populations reflect a combination of severe overfishing of natural predators, like tuna, sharks and swordfish; a higher sea temperatures; and pollution that has depleted oxygen levels in coastal shallows.

Jellyfish are known for their ability to thrive in damaged environments, and that is just what they are doing.

Coral reefs are also under threat. The Philippine Sun Star noted that

20 percent of the world’s coral reefs have already been destroyed, and another 24 percent may be lost within our lifetimes if human impacts on corals are not reduced.

For instance, in the Philippines, coral reefs have been slowly dying over the past 30 years. The World Atlas of Coral Reefs, compiled by the United Nations Environment Program (Unep), reported that 97 percent of reefs in the Philippines are under threat from destructive fishing techniques, including cyanide poisoning, overfishing, or from deforestation and urbanization that result in harmful sediment spilling into the sea.

Similarly, bbc News is reporting that due to overfishing and poor fishing techniques, “More than half of the world’s ocean-going sharks are at risk of extinction,” according to a new iucn (formerly the World Conservation Union) report.

Meanwhile, reports from the Associated Press confirm that penguins are washing up on Brazilian shores in greater numbers and closer to the equator than ever before. Penguins are being found as far north as the state capital Bahia. For comparison purposes, a similar distance north from the equator would put penguins in Barbados or Trinidad and Tobago. Biologists blame dwindling food stocks and unusual ocean currents.

But perhaps some of the most compelling confirmation of just how much the oceans are crying out comes from this Mercury News article, which laments the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” One such garbage patch of plastic, located north of Hawaii, covers an area approximately twice the size of Texas. Unfortunately, most of the oceans are international waters, which means that no country is responsible for keeping them clean, and to this point no one seems interested in tackling the problem. So the oceans will continue to get more polluted. The News explains:

Plastic does not biodegrade. It undergoes a solar-driven process called photodegradation. The sun breaks down the plastic into smaller pieces called nurdles, which retain the plastic’s polymer structure. So, much of the millions of tons of pollution in these garbage patches consist of ubiquitous nurdles in a watery soup. In the North Pacific … plastics outnumber surface plankton six to one ….

It is getting pretty bad when there is more plastic than plankton in a given area of the ocean.

The deteriorating state of the world’s oceans may be good for the jellyfish, which thrive in damaged environments, but it is bad news for the rest of us. Actually, it is a sign that God is trying to get our attention. You can read about how God uses the environment to send messages in the articles “Healing Our Sick Land” and “Weather: God’s Bullhorn to Mankind.” Also see the August Philadelphia Trumpet article “Where Have All the Fish Gone?