The Dead Zone that grows annually in the Gulf of Mexico could stretch to over an area the size of Connecticut, according to new predictions. In all, this area of the Gulf where little life can exist will cover near 5,900 square miles.
The hypoxic zones are created because of the runoff of agricultural waste into waterways. Phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizers and waste from livestock can rob regions of water bodies of their oxygen. As a result, plants and animals in the area are unable to take in the vital element, and die of suffocation.
Although the size of the dead zone may sound large, the predicted area is about average for the summer season, researchers contend.
The Gulf of Mexico is known for its great diversity of life, including many species essential for commercial and recreational purposes.
"Dead zones are a real threat to gulf fisheries and the communities that rely on them. We'll continue to work with our partners to advance the science to reduce that threat. One way we're doing that is by using new tools and resources, like better predictive models, to provide better information to communities and businesses," said Russell Callender of the National Ocean Service.
The Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force has struggled since 2001 to bring the average size of the dead zone in the waterway down to and average of 1,950 square miles. However, the size of the hypoxic zone averaged 5,941 square miles between 1995 and 2015.
"And while the latest forecast calls for an average-size dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, it is important to recognize that these averages are unacceptable," said Don Scavia, an aquatic ecologist from the Graham Sustainability Institute. "The bottom line is that we will never reach the action plan's goal of 1,950 square miles until more serious actions are taken to reduce the loss of Midwest fertilizers into the Mississippi River system."
A series of four computer models were used to develop the new prediction. Individual models varied in their analysis between a low of 5,204 square miles to a high of 6,823 square miles.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) develops predictions each year for the extent of hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as Lake Erie and Chesapeake Bay.
Although researchers have developed their prediction for the Gulf of Mexico, the actual extent of the zone will depend on several environmental factors, including tropical storms and hurricanes.