Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A perfect storm for the Dead Zone

The massive floods in the Midwestern US are likely to fuel the largest Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone in recorded history. The image at right is from the NY Times and the National Weather Service.

Nitrogen applied to crops like corn in the Midwest is the major driver of the now famous Dead Zone, as I've described in a number of previous posts and this Google News commentary. The blame for the high nitrogen levels in the Mississippi and this year's record Dead Zone forecast is being placed on the production of more corn for ethanol. A more complete explanation would be that the surge in corn production, and, hence, fertilizer use, the past few years has made nitrogen pollution more sensitive to the climate than ever.

Nitrogen and hydrology are tightly linked in the Mississippi River Basin, and other agriculturally intensive river basins, thanks to nature and to humans. Several nitrogen 'species' like nitrate are highly soluble. What has exacerbates things in the Mississippi is activities like wetlands, installing artificial drainage under fields and channelizing rivers that reduce chances for nitrogen to be consumed before moving downstream. The result is the amount of nitrogen that the Mississippi sends to the Gulf can actually be predicted from the rainfall in the Corn Belt.

In coverage of our recent paper on corn and the Dead Zone, the prediction that the US Energy Policy would increase average nitrogen loading by 10-34% drew most of the attention. What might be missed is that the nitrogen loading could be much higher if the conditions are wetter.

The reason this matters is the the continental shelf of the Gulf of Mexico has a memory. The usual tale is that the Dead Zone grows each spring and summer when the big flood of Mississippi nitrogen arrives weather and water conditions are ripe for algae growth (it breaks up in the fall when the waters cool and mix, reintroducing oxygen to the bottom waters). However, nitrogen from previous years that is deposited in the sediments can also be recycled and feed algae growth. In other words, the system remembers a big flood of nitrogen. For example, during the 1993 Mississippi floods, the Dead Zone grew to a then-record 17,600 km2; the next year, it grew to an almost equal 16,600 km2, despite 31% less nitrate flowing down the Mississippi. That's just one reason why it is critical to consider climate and climate variability in ecological management and policy.

This year, the Dead Zone is projected to reach over 25,000 km2 in size, 20% greater than the previous maximum. What will that mean for 2009? For 2010? The longer you wait, the harder problems like the Dead Zone are to solve.

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