Mechanisms Controlling Hypoxia: Integrated Causal Modeling of the Oceanographic Processes that Cause the Dead Zone in the Northern Gulf of Mexico
Project Status: This project began in January, 2009 and is projected to be completed in December, 2014
We’re examining the complex physical and biogeochemical relations that control and maintain the low-oxygen dead zone in the northern Gulf of Mexico (nGOM). We are combining field data from moored observatories, shipboard samples, satellite observations, and autonomous underwater vehicle samples with models to understand the interaction of physical, biological, and geochemical processes controlling hypoxia. Our early results show that the causes of hypoxia vary depending on the location.
Why We Care
The dead zone of low oxygen in the northern Gulf of Mexico (nGOM) occurring from Texas to Louisiana is one of the most intractable environmental issues facing the United States. Far-reaching corrective measures that have taken place since hypoxia developed in the early-1980s have been unsuccessful. Year after year, the dead zone varies in size but persists, seriously degrading the ecological health of the region. Examining the interplay and variability of the physical, biological, and geochemical processes occurring throughout the nGOM shelf are crucial to deepen our understanding of the complex mechanisms controlling the hypoxia dead zone.
What We’re Doing
Our current objective builds on previous work that yielded our proven, realistic, coupled hydrodynamic-biological-geochemical-sediment numerical model developed for the nGOM. The model can resolve the dominant oceanographic processes that control the timing, duration, and severity of hypoxia of the region. For this project, new observations and modeling activities will be coordinated with existing federal and state sampling programs and ship cruises of opportunity. The new data will permit us to make advances in wind, river discharge, and currents affecting freshwater plume dispersal; vertical mixing processes; stratification over the Texas-Louisiana shelf; biogeochemical and transport processes affecting the load of biologically available nutrients and organic matter to the Gulf of Mexico; the role of phosphorus relative to nitrogen in regulating phytoplankton production; and the linkages between inshore primary productivity, offshore production, and the fate of the carbon produced. To achieve these objectives, we will expand on our integrated multidisciplinary approach by utilizing a combination of moorings, detailed process-oriented surveys, remote sensing observations, and enhanced realistic coupled numerical modeling.
What We’re Finding
We’re finding that the causes of hypoxia in the nGOM vary depending on the location. Close to the Mississippi River Delta, the mechanisms that maintain and sustain the hypoxia are mostly driven by biological processes (e.g. nutrients and phytoplankton growth). Further downstream (farther offshore and westward toward Texas), the dominant controlling processes are physical (e.g. currents and winds). Currents and winds in the regions farther from the Mississippi River combine to break down the vertical stratification necessary to sustain the low dissolved oxygen. These factors produce two distinct hypoxic regions:
An eastern region of the shelf, between 91°W and 89°W that is almost always hypoxic in mid-summer.
A variable western region between 91°W, the Louisiana-Texas border and westward toward Brownsville, Texas.
The variable westward region largely controls the total size of the nGOM hypoxic area in a given year.
Related Regions of Study: Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana, Texas
Primary Contact: David Scheurer
Related NCCOS Center: CSCOR