- Booms, Blooms, and Doom:The Life of the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone
For fourteen weeks in the winter and early spring of 2016, snow and rain kept falling on the Midwestern states. There were a few dry days in between many wet ones, but the usual long spells failed to come. Weather trackers had never seen the Midwest escape drought for such an extended period. Not surprisingly, precipitation exceeded annual averages for much of the region. In April, eight inches of rain soaked northwestern Missouri, where no more than three were normal, and in the first two weeks of the month, snowfall in northern Ohio reached up to seventeen inches above average.1
Midwestern farmers welcomed the moistening of the soil, just as long as the rain stopped before the ground turned too muddy for planting. The rain stopped. By the first of May, the majority of the corn crop was in the ground, surpassing a five-year average, and soybeans were close behind. These were the region's principal cash crops. The growing season was off to a nice start.
But what was good for farmers of the Midwest was bad for sea life down in the northern Gulf of Mexico, hundreds of miles from the growing fields. In June, a two-decker headline in Mother Jones warned that the Gulf "is about to experience a 'dead zone' the size of Connecticut," nearly 6,000 square miles. Typically, the seasonal dead [End Page 156] zone kept to Delaware dimensions, its length running the front of Louisiana, reaching toward Texas in one direction, Alabama in the other, and some 40 miles into the Gulf.2
Scientists discovered the Gulf of Mexico dead zone in the 1970s, as an annual summer event. Within a few years they tracked down its principal source to chemical fertilizer runoff from the Mississippi River drainage basin, which taps forty percent of the contiguous United States, a total of thirty–one states. The area includes the Midwest and most of the High Plains, America's agricultural heartland. Corn, the biggest crop in the region and a fertilizer hog, was the principal contributor to the Gulf's woes. In the twenty–first century, with the increased production of corn-based ethanol, scientists saw a spike in fertilizer use and in the size of the dead zone.
From the beginning, the ethanol connection made interesting copy for the media. Federal assistance greatly expanded the additive's presence in the domestic fuel inventory, and scientists looking for answers to reducing the dead zone, operating on federal grants in many cases, were sobered by the eclipsing power of the marketplace.
But there is an important backstory here that remains adrift from the news-generating narrative. Long before ethanol's ascendency, the dead zone came to life in postwar America and of age with the baby boom generation. A defining facet in the boomer experience was the changing culinary landscape, an overall distressing development for Americans and the Gulf together. The diet of the new generation spiraled away from nutritional goodness and took a fateful turn into rivers and streams in the direction of the Gulf. Ultimately, the diminishing physical health of Americans translated into the diminishing health of their backyard sea.
journalists came up with the name "dead zone" in the 1980s for what scientists were abstrusely calling hypoxic coastal waters. The oxygen level in such areas, some several hundred acres and others [End Page 157] several thousand square miles, periodically drops to a level too low to support marine life. The results are mass die offs of sea creatures, especially bottom dwellers. Behind the morbidity lies an excessive infusion of nutrients. The overloading stimulates phytoplankton blooms, and, eventually, all this new minuscule life begins to die and sink to the bottom, often with other decaying organic matter. Performing its custodial role in the ecosystem, bacteria steps in to break down the dead, generating carbon dioxide as it consumes massive quantities of oxygen, leaving sea creatures to suffocate.
Dead zones are worldwide. Some are natural, others the fallout of human activities. The former have been around for time immemorial. Alabama's Mobile Bay...