By Randy Lee Loftis, Environmental Writer, The Dallas Morning News
Creolefish schooling around black corals and gorgonians in deepwater habitat at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Credit: Institute for Exploration and the University of Rhode Island Institute for Archeological Oceanography (IFE/URIIAO).
First imagine that your neighborhood has a community swimming pool. It is recognized as a treasured asset. Real-estate agents promote it to buyers, making your neighborhood more desirable and your home more valuable. Everybody’s happy.
But then you notice a problem. The water seems a bit cloudy. There’s a film on your skin when you get out of the pool. The water starts to smell like moldy carpet.
Security camera videos reveal the cause: Everybody has been using the pool as a disposal. Some dump their coffee grounds into the pool. Some unload used cooking grease, others the extra fertilizer that plants didn’t absorb. And it’s not just your neighbors. People in nearby counties, even distant states, are shipping their wastes to your pool.
That is the plight of the Gulf of Mexico. Although the millions of original insults might seem small in themselves, and the destination seems big and invincible, the Gulf gathers and multiplies them all into consequences of global importance.
Sounds like a pretty good story. Here are some starting points for covering the science of how we’re changing our semi-enclosed sea.
Orientation, Geography and Population
The Gulf covers about 580,000 square miles and touches the shores of three nations: the United States (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas); Mexico (Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Tabasco, Campeche, and Yucatan); and Cuba.
It is also a weathermaker, although recent research suggests that the culturally ingrained conclusion that the Gulf Stream is responsible for northwestern Europe’s odd winter warmth is under challenge. Like all oceans, the Gulf is subject to the effects of climate change, from higher temperatures and sea levels to acidification and species impacts.
An inner shelf keeps most Gulf coastal waves too puny for much surfing. More than two-thirds of the Gulf is considered shallow water. But when the outer shelf drops off, it does so emphatically. At Sigsbee Deep, southeast of Brownsville, Texas, the bottom is an estimated 13,000-14,000 feet below the surface.
The Gulf receives the runoff from a vast watershed, from the eastern slopes of the Rockies to the western slopes of the Appalachians. Major river systems include the Mississippi, the Tennessee, the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola, and many local systems.
Clockwise from Key West and back around to Cuba, every person and every outpost of nature is subject to hurricanes and lesser storms as well as sea-level rise. On such a low-profile coast, a little rise in the water reaches far inland.
Story-rich geographic and historical features of the Gulf include the birthplace of blues and jazz; the world’s longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island, and further south, miles of motels and spring breakers; an island nation off-limits to most U.S. residents; and the meteor impact crater that ended the dinosaurs, at least until Michael Crichton came along.
For a comprehensive introduction to the science, history and culture of the Gulf, see the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Gulf page.
NOAA also offers an in-depth look here.
Another good and scientifically reliable overview of Gulf geography is here. The site compiles research from different organizations, including its host, the university-based Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.
The U.S. Geological Survey has a seemingly endless amount of Gulf information. One useful portal to research on the Gulf and other marine waters is here.
One recent news summary of the changing view of the Gulf Stream as Europe’s weathermaker is here.
The Gulf is a global commercial hub. Major ports include, in order of annual tonnage, South Louisiana (a 54-mile stretch along the Mississippi River); Houston; Corpus Christi; and a dozen others. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Gulf region has 13 of the 20 busiest ports in the U.S.
Because of its protected harbors and the proximity of petroleum, Texas and Louisiana are world leaders in energy, chemicals and related shipping. Crude oil and petroleum shipments dominate. Food, largely the Midwest’s grain, is also big cargo.
The Corps of Engineers’ Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center has nearly every conceivable figure from the national to the local, plus free shape files for a wide variety of GIS projects.
Oil, Gas and Chemicals
More than 3,700 U.S.-based, active oil and gas platforms are in the Gulf. Along with coastal region production, the Gulf accounts for about half of U.S. oil, gas and refinery capacity.
Shallow waters off Louisiana have the heaviest concentration of offshore rigs, followed in order by Texas, Mississippi and Alabama. The Gulf also has very deep drilling, as in “Deepwater Horizon.” Offshore operations are served by about 27,000 miles of in-use pipelines and about 1,000 miles of proposed lines. At the same time, about 17,000 miles of older lines are out of service.
Regulation in federal waters is by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. Each rose from the wreckage of the old Minerals Management Service after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Each Gulf state also plays a role by permitting oil and gas operations in its nearshore waters. Although these regulators rarely receive the same scrutiny as their federal friends, nearshore operations can be huge moneymakers for the states. In addition, the environmental consequences of nearshore mismanagement might be more immediate and visible.
Marine Life and Fisheries
The science and management resources in the introduction all provide a great deal of information on nature in the Gulf.
The Gulf’s waters contain a huge array of life, including nine species of dolphins, 19 of whales and the West Indian manatee. Blue whales have been sighted in the Gulf on occasion.
Padre Island National Seashore in Texas has recorded nesting by five of the seven species of sea turtles: green, loggerhead, leatherback, hawksbill, and Kemp’s ridley.
Atop submerged salt domes 70-114 miles off southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas is Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, a coral-reef complex surprisingly found 400 miles north of the nearest other coral community, off Tampico, Mexico. In addition to being a key research, monitoring and conservation site, the sanctuary is SCUBA habitat.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, based in Tampa, Fla., writes and administers management plans in waters of the U.S. exclusive economic zone, basically the whole Gulf beyond state waters. As elsewhere, conflicts between commercial and sport fishing are frequent.
The Gulf has extensive estuaries — behind Texas’ barrier islands, along the delta of the Louisiana coast and in pockets and river-mouths in other states. They serve as nurseries for many oceangoing species and provide invaluable habitat for other life, including migratory and shore-dwelling birds. Estuaries depend on freshwater inflows to maintain their brackish nature, making upstream water management critically important.
One case has broad national implications for using the Endangered Species Act to protect Gulf estuaries. An environmental group, the Aransas Project, sued Texas in 2011 to stop freshwater diversions from depriving whooping cranes of blue crabs, their winter food. The group won at trial, but in late June 2014 the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals said the state permits and the starved whooping cranes were too loosely linked to prove cause and effect. The Aransas Project hasn’t said whether it will appeal to the Supreme Court. The appeals court said the Endangered Species Act might be used to limit some state actions, but the decision was still a win for Texas officials and will almost certainly make estuarine protection more difficult everywhere in the Gulf and perhaps nationwide.
Some resources on the case, The Aransas Project v. Shaw et al.:
- "The Aransas Project v. Shaw et al. Ruling," Case No. 13-40317, June 30, 2014.
- The Aransas Project
- Case summary by Blackburn & Carter, including briefings, reports, transcripts and more.
The Dead Zone
Of all the chronic Gulf issues that journalists might link directly to their audiences’ backyards, even those many states upstream, the dead zone is perhaps the most dramatic.
“Dead zone” is the common term for an area where nutrient-rich inflows result in a harmful lack of dissolved oxygen in the water. The technical term for a low-oxygen condition is hypoxia; no oxygen is apoxia.
In the water, nutrients and sunlight supercharge the growth of massive amounts of algae. When the algae die, they sink and decompose. The decomposition of such giant quantities of algae consumes the oxygen in the water, leaving little or none for marine life. Some living things die; others flee to places where they can still breathe.
NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Watch, with links to many resources, is here.
Strictly speaking, eutrophication is the overloading of a water body with nutrients and hypoxia is the condition that frequently results from the overloading.
Dead-zone assessments are a regular summer bummer. In June, NOAA-supported modelers at universities and agencies issue forecasts for the Gulf and Chesapeake Bay based on water and weather conditions. Actual monitoring results for the Gulf come out by early August and for the much smaller Chesapeake dead zone in October.
The Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, directed by the estimable Dr. Nancy N. Rabalais, has data sets going back to 1985.
Researchers reported in Science in 2008 that the number of waters worldwide that experience hypoxia has increased significantly since 1960, reaching the Southern Hemisphere for the first time.
Simply stated, all those steroids for plant life are the result of fertilizer used upstream that reaches the Mississippi through runoff. Farms and suburban yards that have nitrogen applied to them, even hundreds of miles away, are potential contributors to the dead zone.
In May 2013, according to the USGS’ estimate, high flows in the Mississippi River carried 182,000 metric tons of nitrate into the Gulf (in May 2014, with lower flows, the input was 101,000 metric tons). The 2013 load is the rough equivalent of 2.75 rail hopper cars being dumped at the mouth of the Mississippi each hour, 24 hours a day, for a month.
Ol’ Man River is a mighty stream, but such enormous volumes of nitrates are distinctly unnatural. The USGS notes that the nitrogen-nitrate concentration in the river’s main stem has doubled since 1950.
In 2010, scientists at the University of Illinois and Cornell University reported that tile drainage, a water management method widely used in the Midwest, was a major cause of nitrate inputs into the Gulf. One researcher said increased nitrogen losses from the land could bear much of the blame.
The most obvious answer is to reduce nitrogen at the source, limiting its agricultural and residential use in the Gulf watershed. On the farm, some growers have experimented with different cultivation and crop choices and better drainage practices.
Controlling animal waste and other nutrient loads is also on the answers list. And restoration of greatly depleted coastal wetlands can help.
As NOLA.com | Times-Picayune reporter (and 2014 SEJ annual conference chair) Mark Schleifstein reported in February, Louisiana officials have outlined a system of water diversions to reduce some of the nutrient loads. Environmentalists called it weak.
Unfocused and voluntary solutions haven’t yielded dramatic results. In September 2013, a federal judge in Louisiana, ruling on a lawsuit by environmentalists, gave the U.S. EPA until March 2014 to decide whether the Clean Water Act requires it to set nutrient water-quality standards to protect the Gulf.
The suit followed years of back-and-forth between the agency and environmentalists.
The EPA, after months of inaction (surprise!), finally acted, but not on the problem itself. Instead, it appealed the March deadline and got a stay. It’s still not known when or whether the agency will ever act.
Apparently tired of waiting, New Orleans billionaire (oil/gas) Phyllis Taylor has launched a series of “Tulane Grand Challenge Prizes” for innovative solutions to world problems. The first is a $1 million prize to anyone who can come up with a workable solution to hypoxia. Tulane University is coordinating.