Louisiana “dead zone” scientist wins $500,000 MacArthur “Genius Grant”

By Mark Schleifstein, The Times-Picayune
5 October 2012

Each fall, marine ecologist Nancy Rabalais pours a bottle of oxygen-starved water from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico into an urn at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge. It’s part of an annual water rite at the church. Most congregants bring water they collect from summer vacations – in, say, Perdido Key, or perhaps Cape Cod.

Nancy Rabalais 1.JPGLouisiana Universities Marine Consortium Executive Director and marine ecologist Nancy Rabalais was awarded a five-year, $500,000 MacArthur Foundation fellowship.  Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium

But Rabalais’ water is scooped up in her research aimed at tracking the size of the annual low-oxygen “dead zone” along the coasts of Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi. The research is part of a broader effort to identify links between agriculture along the Mississippi River and the annual summer anomaly in the Gulf.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve collected water from the bottom of the Gulf where there isn’t any oxygen and poured it into the urn, with a recommitment to improving the quality of the Gulf of Mexico,” said Rabalais, who also is executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium laboratory in Cocodrie, also known as LUMCON.

This week, Rabalais’ efforts were rewarded with a five-year, $500,000 unrestricted “Genius Grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The fellowship was presented to Rabalais for “documenting the environmental and economic consequences of hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico and informing strategies for restoring the degraded waters of the Gulf and the Mississippi River basins.”

“While weathering the destruction of her research facility in catastrophic hurricanes and treacherous diving conditions due to oil spills, Rabalais continues to deepen our understanding of this profound oceanographic problem that threatens the well-being of the entire Gulf region,” MacArthur officials said in announcing the award.

Hypoxia is the scientific name for low oxygen levels in water, of the sort that occurs in the Gulf each spring and summer. Spring rains wash fertilizer nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorus – off agricultural land in the Mississippi River watershed, which includes parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces.

When the nutrient-rich freshwater flows out of the mouth of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers, it creates a layer atop the saltier Gulf waters. That spurs explosive growth of algae, which eventually die and sink to the bottom. The algae’s decay uses up the oxygen in the lower levels, which is not returned until strong storms or hurricanes mixes the oxygen-rich water at the surface into the deeper saltwater layer.

Shrimp and fish that normally feed in the lower levels move out as the oxygen drops below 2 parts per million, but organisms that live in the bottom sediments are killed.

Rabalais has been mapping the size of the dead zone during a two-week cruise each July since 1985. This summer, the dead zone covered 2,889 square miles, a bit larger than the state of Delaware. In 2002, Mississippi River floodwaters helped create the largest dead zone recorded by Rabalais, at more than 8,500 square miles, an area bigger than the state of Massachusetts.

Similar low-oxygen ocean patterns are found around the world at the ends of other large river watersheds where large amounts of agriculture take place.

Rabalais and fellow researchers were instrumental in linking the formation and growth of the hypoxic zone each year to the use of fertilizers upriver. That research has helped guide the development and implementation of a federal-state Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan.

Low-oxygen water covered 2,889 square miles of the coast in Louisiana and Texas this year. Dan Swenson, The Times-Picayune

“We’re working on the relationship between the Gulf and the watershed, studying the use of nutrients and the economics” involved in farming, Rabalais said. She meets routinely with researchers and public officials upriver along the Mississippi to develop strategies for reducing the amount of fertilizer that gets into the river, and for restoring wetlands along the river that will use up nutrients before they travel downstream.

As LUMCON director, Rabalais also is overseeing new research into the potential effects of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill on wetlands in the Gulf, paid for with a three-year, $11.7 million grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative — underwritten by a share of the $500 million BP has made available for research.

“We’re the only consortium that really focuses on wetlands and nearshore waters, how oil may have affected wetland processes, the organisms, food webs, microbial genetics, and shifts in the makeup of soil microbes,” she said.

Rabalais hopes that research will also add to a baseline understanding of coastal processes that can be used to plan wetland and shoreline restoration projects in Louisiana and elsewhere.

Money from the fellowship will help underwrite her research and that of her graduate students at LUMCON and LSU, where she serves as an adjunct faculty member, Rabalais said. The money also will help pay for expenses not picked up by other grants, such as travel to science meetings, the purchase of scientific equipment, and a dinner or two for her students.

The timing couldn’t be more fortuitous, as state funding for LUMCON has not escaped this year’s budget cuts, Rabalais said.

“Money for research is a continual struggle, and much of it is out of our control, the victim of politics and the economy,” she said.

LUMCON receives about a third of its money from the state’s annual budget, a third from grants, and a third from auxiliary revenue, which includes the operation of the lab’s cafeteria and the use of its dormitory by visiting researchers and education programs.

Rabalais also plans to give some of her grant money “to private entities that have supported me emotionally and spiritually over the years,” such as her church.

“The science is so incredibly interesting and rewarding, but the community is important as well,” she said.

Like this year’s other 22 MacArthur fellows, the phone call informing Rabalais she had won the fellowship came as a surprise. Fellows don’t apply for the financial assistance; rather, they are chosen by the foundation.

Rabalais was in Villahermosa, Mexico, preparing to give a talk on her research at a United Nations-sponsored workshop on climate change and coastal resilience.

“Are you alone?” asked the MacArthur staffer.

“No,” Rabalais responded.

“Can you be alone?” the caller replied.

Rabalais left her meeting, thinking MacArthur officials wanted her advice on one of this year’s potential winners, something she’d done in the past.

“Then they got around to asking my birthdate, and I said, ‘Oh! Are you telling me I have a MacArthur award?”

The honor is the latest of several garnered by the marine scientist. In 1999, Rabalais and husband and LSU coastal scientist R. Eugene Turner were awarded the San Diego Foundation’s $250,000 Blasker Award for Science and Engineering, also for dead zone research. The same year, she was named a NOAA Environmental Hero. In 2008, she was awarded the Athalie Richardson Irvine Clarke Prize by the Natiional Water Research Institute.

She also won a $100,000 Heinz Family Foundation Award last year, and earlier this year was presented with the Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in Science.

Rabalais, 62, received bachelors and masters of science degrees in biology from Texas A & I University, now known as Texas A&M University-Kingsville, and a doctorate in zoology from the University of Texas at Austin. She is an author of three books, 29 book chapters, and more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific publications.