News Stories

Record Dead Zone

Not just oil, MINING too! - It's not just oil exploration that threatens the marine life that so much of the world depends on, it's also mining. As expected, this year's Gulf of Mexico dead zone is expected to be HUGE, continuing a decades-long trend that threatens the health of a $659 million fishery (although it's not clear what impact the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will have on this, because numerous factors are at work.

Due to the BP oil spill, the public has learned about the dangers of drilling on the ocean floor, but hardly anyone has heard of another deep sea danger: MINING the ocean floor. Again as expected, it concerns the Chinese, who have just filed the first application to mine for minerals in international waters, in this case on a ridge in the Indian Ocean, where they hope to find valuable metals such as copper, nickel and cobalt (used in cell phones, laptops and batteries) and even gold and silver. In the July 2nd edition of the Independent, Michael McCarthy quotes researcher Charles Clover as saying, "The reality is, they are identifying gold mines under the sea."

McCarthy writes: "Although no one knows exactly what damage a deep-sea mine would do to the marine ecosystem, experts have no doubt that removing a considerable part of the sea floor would cause a major disturbance."

Back in the Gulf, NOAA's 2010 forecast calls for a Gulf dead zone of between 6,500 and 7,800 square miles, an area roughly the size of Lake Ontario. The most likely scenario is a Gulf dead zone of 6,564 square miles, which would make it the Gulf's 10th-largest oxygen-starved region on record. The average size over the past five years was about 6,000 square miles. The five largest Gulf dead zones on record have occurred since 2001. The biggest occurred in 2002 and measured 8,484 square miles.

Aquatic ecologist Donald Scavia says, "We're not certain how this will play out. But one fact is clear: The combination of summer hypoxia (oxygen starvation) and toxic-oil impacts on mortality, spawning and recruitment is a one-two punch that could seriously diminish valuable Gulf commercial and recreational fisheries."

The oil spill is something new: Farmland runoff containing fertilizers and livestock waste--some of it from as far away as the Corn Belt--is the main source of the nitrogen and phosphorus that cause the annual Gulf of Mexico hypoxia zone. Each year in late spring and summer, these nutrients flow down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf, fueling explosive algae blooms there. When the algae die and sink, bottom-dwelling bacteria decompose the organic matter, consuming oxygen in the process. The result is an oxygen-starved region in bottom and near-bottom waters: the dead zone. However, the presence of oil could actually help: by restricting the growth of hypoxia-fueling algae, it may limit the size of the Gulf dead zone.

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Art credit: Dreamstime.com

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