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Largest Gulf of Mexico “Dead Zone” on Record Predicted This Summer

National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science’s (NCCOS)-supported scientists from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and Louisiana State University (LSU) are officially forecasting that the “dead zone” off the coast of Louisiana and Texas in the Gulf of Mexico this summer could be the largest on record. The researchers are predicting the area could measure 23,000 km2. This forecast, which uses nitrogen loadings data by the U.S. Geological Survey, can be attributed to a large influx of nitrogen and exceptionally high flows from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers this spring. If no strong storms appear, this would be the largest since measurements began in 1985.

Using an ecosystem-based approach, NOAA research studies have led to predictive models capable of examining a multitude of interacting factors on the size of the hypoxic zone. These models are integrating oceanographic physical data and coastal biogeochemistry to improve quantification of the duration, timing, and extent of the hypoxic zone, and their relationship to causative factors such as nutrients and stratification. Model predictions of complex processes will continue to allow for the comprehensive assessment of alternative management strategies to mitigate hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. From this suite of models the LSU forecast has a strong track record as the most accurate, although all have proven useful in evaluating the relationship between nutrient loads and hypoxia. Another NCCOS-supported model, developed by University of Michigan scientists, has also predicted a possible record breaking hypoxic zone this summer.

Management directives to mitigate the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone come primarily from the Gulf of Mexico/Mississippi River Watershed Nutrients Task Force and its 2008 Action Plan. NOAA has supported Task Force activities since its inception, and is represented on the Task Force by Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr., U.S. Navy (Ret.) Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator. Furthermore, NCCOS scientists represent NOAA on the Task Force’s Coordinating Committee, play key advisory roles, and manage National programs that are the major driving force for determining priorities for, and funding of, research into the causes of hypoxia and its impacts on living resources. Although the size of the hypoxic zone has not decreased since the original 2001 Action Plan, NOAA remains committed to working with its partners on the Task Force to reach the goal of reducing the hypoxic zone to an annual size of 5,000 km2. The annual NCCOS-supported summer measurement of the hypoxic zone, which provides the benchmark for assessing progress towards the goals of the Action Plan, is slated to begin on July 20, 2008.

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