In general, I secretly believe that ecologists must be among the most depressed people on earth. Not because they are pre-disposed to be so, but because their work is often akin to that of a hospice nurse or a coroner. They are immersed with studying almost-dead and dying ecosystems, communities flying apart at the seams, or the devastation of ecosystems demolished by disease, over-hunting, climate change, pollution or habitat fragmentation. And so it was with not a little surprise this morning that I noted on the National Science Foundation’s daily list of press releases that marine “dead zones” now number 400 across the planet, and — according to the release — they are doubling every decade.
You can read the NSF’s materials here. They’ve accrued a package of pieces including a four minute long audio slide show, two articles with video and a podcast of the lead researcher discussing the problem.
I grew up in Northcentral Florida. Within a few hours drive of my home, the mouth of the Fenholloway River pours into the Gulf of Mexico. Not many people have heard of the Fenholloway. It’s barely recognizable as a river anymore. It’s a stinking channel of effluent that the Buckeye Papermill in Taylor County has turned into its personal sewer system. The river meets the Gulf choked with poisons. Along the way, groundwater and drinking water are also poisoned. A 2006 article in the Florida Sportsman stated, “The few fish that remain in the river are exhibiting bizarre, sex-changing characteristics. Meanwhile, the discharges have left a 10-square-mile bald patch in Big Bend waters where seagrasses once flourished.” Big Bend is the massive interior bend in Florida’s shoreline where the panhandle gives way to the peninsula. It is a gorgeous area full of large, stable salt marsh and estuary ecosystems. The Big Bend is known as a nursery for many marine species including scallops and fish. It’s characterized by shallow water and rich, productive sea grass beds. Except for at the mouth of the Fenholloway, where the locals say the stench of the paper mill “smells like money.”
Where the Fenholloway River pours out, there is a massive area devoid of life. Environmentalists have put pressure on the mill and the state to rectify this egregious rape of the environment for corporate gain. The mill’s proposed solution? Pipe the effluent further out into the Gulf. Out of sight, out of mind. The fallout from the Fenholloway is not a true “dead zone” in terms of how most marine biologists and ecologists might define the phenomenon because its causal mechanisms are different (chemical pollution, little to no algal blooms present and so on) but the outcome is the same: areas of formerly productive ocean that now hold no life.
But the Fenholloway’s 10-square-mile dead patch — as horrific as it sounds — pales in comparison to a larger, true dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico a bit further north and west. It’s a lot larger, measuring 6,000 to 7,000 square miles. It stretches from the Mississippi River Delta to the Texas coast. In fact, it is one of the largest dead zones on the planet. The Mississippi — which contains watersheds from the entire eastern U.S. plus some of the west — is overloaded with nitrogen and phosphorous, which accumulate along the river’s course and then spew out into the Gulf. The increased availability of nitrogen allows algae to thrive, and so it grows and grows, sucking all the oxygen out of the surrounding water, stealing it from other organisms and causing a massive spike in oxygen uptake.
What’s different about the dead zone research the NSF is publicizing is that climate change — not just nutrient overloading — is identified as a driver for the emergence and growth of some dead zones, like one off the coast of Oregon. Read more at NSF’s web site.