Sustainability Climate Change

The ‘dead zone’ off US coast is now bigger than Connecticut

Story at a glance

  • A hypoxic zone, an area largely depleted of oxygen, at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico has grown to a degree significantly greater than expected.
  • The dead zone, which is now roughly the size of Connecticut, occurred largely due to nutrients in runoff from farmlands and cities.
  • Algae consume the sewage before sapping oxygen levels to a level that is inhospitable to most marine life.

A hypoxic zone at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico — an area largely depleted of oxygen —  has grown to a degree significantly greater than experts expected, covering roughly 6,334 square miles. 

The dead zone, which is now roughly the size of Connecticut, occurred due in large part to the nutrients in runoff from farmlands and cities. Algae consume the sewage for these nutrients, eventually sinking and sapping oxygen levels to a level that is inhospitable to most marine life. 

Researchers studied the waters off the coast of Louisiana during a yearly survey from July 25 to Aug. 1 and found the hypoxic zone measured more than a thousand square miles larger than anticipated. Research indicates that hypoxic waters can drastically alter marine diets, reproduction and growth.

“Basically half of the Louisiana coast for several miles, many miles offshore, the oxygen was too low to support the occurrence of penaeid shrimp, which is one of our biggest economic fisheries in that area,” Nancy Rabalais, professor at Louisiana State University and LUMCON, and also the principal investigator, told AccuWeather

“So that area was basically lost as available and suitable habitat to those shrimp. How that’s going to convert to catches in money in the next month or so, I can’t really say.”


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Scientists also attribute the massive hypoxic zone to low levels of tropical weather in the region, despite Hurricane Elsa hitting earlier this year off the coast of Florida. At the same time, researchers told AccuWeather, the size may also have been compounded by a larger than average amount of water flowing from the Mississippi.

“[More fresh water] strengthened the difference between the upper layer and the bottom layer, and that prevents oxygen from getting from the surface to the bottom,” Rabalais told the outlet.

Based on runoff data, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted the average hypoxic zone would encompass 4,880 square miles, while the largest hypoxic zone recorded since measurements began was 8,776 square miles in 2017. The average hypoxic zone over a five year period has been measured at 5,380 square miles. Researchers measured the zone at 2,116 square miles in 2020 and the area has grown to over 6,000 square miles in the last year.


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“This year, we have seen again and again the profound effect that climate change has on our communities — from historic drought in the west to flooding events. Climate is directly linked to water, including the flow of nutrient pollution into the Gulf of Mexico,” Environmental Protection Agency Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox said in a NOAA press release.

“As we work to address the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone, we must consider climate change and we must strengthen our collaboration and partnerships to make needed progress,” Fox concluded.


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