SERIES OF ARTICLES FROM ABOARD THE PELICAN: Everything you wanted to know about the dead zone, but were afraid to ask

By Robert Morris;
September 10 – 12, 2007; The Courier, Houma

Courier senior staff writer Robert Morris will be traveling into the Gulf this week with a team of scientists from LUMCON, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Cocodrie. Aboard the Pelican, LUMCON’s 116-foot research vessel, Morris will have the undivided attention of the top experts on the dead zone.

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1. Everything you wanted to know about the dead zone, but were afraid to ask 

2. THE BASICS: What is the dead zone?
Every summer, from the mouth of the Mississippi to the middle of the Texas coast, the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico becomes uninhabitable for all but the tiniest organisms.
This area, called the dead zone, has too little oxygen for anything else to breathe. The cause? Fertilizer and nutrients carried down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf. …

THE BASICS: Where does the dead zone come from?
The Gulf of Mexico dead zone, say the scientists who study it, is essentially the accidental side effect of man’s natural efforts to sustain life.
What starts as the basic nutrients necessary to grow corn in the nation’s breadbasket ends up a 7,900-square-mile swath of the Gulf coastline uninhabitable for most marine life.

THE BASICS: Into the dead zone
The ship responsible for much of the current research on the dead zone is the Pelican, a 116-foot research vessel outfitted with an array of instruments and tools for studying the water. …

5.THE BASICS: What is so bad about the dead zone?
In an economy so dependent on the Gulf, perhaps nothing should be scarier than an swath of water larger than New Jersey where sea life cannot live.
Just past Terrebonne’s Isles Dernieres chain of barrier islands is one edge of the dead zone, a long, 7,900-square-mile stretch of the Gulf of Mexico with such low amounts of oxygen that fish, shrimp and crabs cannot breathe. …

6. The big scoop
When you’re studying the dead zone and the microscopic organism that create it, precision is everything. Here’s a look at how they collected data on their fourth stop of the day. …

7. Not so dead anymore 
The first day’s readings were like a breath of fresh air.
A survey of seven waypoints in a straight line running south of the Atchafalaya River into the Gulf shows that the dead zone conditions have begun to dissipate for the year. …

8. Searching for signs of life
Hope may lie in the mud. …

9. Storm? What Storm?
When you’re in the middle of the dead zone, little things like tropical depressions don’t bother you much. …

Islands of oil and information
Whoever thinks Louisiana is short on skyscrapers hasn’t spent much time in the Gulf.
Towering nearly 200 feet over the water, Chevron’s Hammerhead oil platform is just one of many scattered across the state’s coast. …

Dark in the dead zone
Drawn by the spotlight on the Pelican – as the ship’s scientists take their final sets of measurements – little crabs paddle their way across the top of the water, 60 feet above where they should be on the Gulf floor. …