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5.2.5: Mississippi River Case Study

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    48217
  • Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico

    Agricultural runoff can contribute pollutants to natural waters, such as rivers, lakes, and the ocean, that can have serious ecological and economic impacts, such as the creation of areas with low levels of dissolved oxygen called dead zones caused by pollution from fertilizers. Nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, are elements that are essential for plant growth and are applied on farmland as fertilizers to increase the productivity of agricultural crops. The runoff of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) from fertilizers and manure applied to farmland contributes to the development of hypoxic zones or dead zones in the receiving waters through the process of eutrophication (Figure 4.2.7).

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    Figure 4.2.7.: Eutrophication. Credit: EPA: Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force

    Watch the following videos from NOAA’s National Ocean Service that show how dead zones are formed and explain the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico:

    The nutrients that make our crops grow better also fertilize phytoplankton in lakes and the ocean. Phytoplankton are microscopic organisms that photosynthesize just like our food crops. With more nitrogen and phosphorus available to them, they grow and multiply. When the phytoplankton dies, decomposers eat them. The decomposers also grow and multiply. As they’re eating all of the abundant phytoplankton, they use up the available oxygen in the water. The lack of oxygen forces mobile organisms to leave the area and kills the organisms that can’t leave and need oxygen. The zone of low oxygen levels is called a hypoxic or dead zone. Streams flowing through watersheds where agriculture is the primary land use exhibit the highest concentrations of nitrogen (Figure 4.2.8).

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    Figure 4.2.8.: Nitrogen concentrations in streams draining watersheds with different land uses. Credit: Dubrovsky and Hamilton 2010, The Quality of Our Nation’s Waters, Nutrients in the Nation’s Streams and Groundwater: National Findings and Implications

    The Mississippi River is the largest river basin in North America (Figure 4.2.9), the third largest in the world, and drains more than 40 percent of the land area of the conterminous U.S., 58 percent of which is very productive farmland (Goolsby and Battaglin, 2000). Nutrient concentrations in the lower Mississippi River have increased markedly since the 1950s along with increased use of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers (Figure 4.2.10). When the Mississippi River’s nutrient-laden water reaches the Gulf of Mexico, it fertilizes the marine phytoplankton. These microscopic photosynthesizing organisms reproduce and grow vigorously. When the phytoplankton die, they decompose. The organisms that eat the dead phytoplankton use up much of the oxygen in the Gulf’s water resulting in hypoxic conditions. The resulting region of low oxygen content is referred to as a dead zone or hypoxic zone. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River has grown dramatically and in some years encompasses an area the size of the state of Connecticut (~5,500 square miles) or larger. Hypoxic waters can cause stress and even cause the death of marine organisms, which in turn can affect commercial fishery harvests and the health of ecosystems.

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    Figure 4.2.9.: The Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basin and the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: USGS Factbook - Nitrogen in the Mississippi Basin-Estimating Sources and Predicting Flux to the Gulf of Mexico

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    Figure 4.2.10.: Nitrogen inputs and population from 1940-2010. Credit: USGS: Trends in Nutrients and Pesticides in the Nation's Rivers and Streams

    Optional Reading

    Additional Resources about the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico

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