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Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone is Size of Connecticut

Updated 2:20 p.m.

As predicted, the Gulf of Mexico's Dead Zone could fit a Connecticut inside. According to data released by federal agencies on Monday, the area of oxygen-starved water near the end of the Mississippi River is 5,052 square miles. 


The size of this year's Dead Zone is considered average by scientists. It's down slightly from the 5,840 square miles of 2013, and well short of the record of 8,481 square miles recorded in 2002.


Nevertheless, officials with the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association maintain that it's much larger than the 2,000 square miles that was an agreed-upon goal of a task force formed to address the growing Dead Zone in 2002.


“While it is known that Louisiana is not one of the top contributors of Dead Zone-causing pollution, that is where the biggest impacts are felt,” said Matt Rota, Senior Policy Director for the Gulf Restoration Network, in a prepared statement. “Despite this impact, Louisiana is simply not doing enough to make upriver polluters stop polluting the Gulf.”


The 2014 Dead Zone is in two areas, according to federal data. The largest area stretches just below South Louisiana between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers. Another smaller area lies below Southwest Louisiana.


The Dead Zone is caused by pollution from fertilizer and wastewater that empties down the Mississippi River into the Gulf during every spring runoff season. The nitrogen and other chemicals result in an overgrowth of algae. The algae then "sinks, decomposes, and consumes the oxygen needed to support life in the Gulf," according to Monday's news release from NOAA.


Known in scientific terms as hypoxia, the oxygen starved area of water makes it impossible for life to exist, literally suffocating marine life, destroying ecosystems and sending shrimp and other fish swimming away from their preferred homes.


This year, experts estimate a total of 101,000 metric tons of nitrate flowed down the Mississippi River.


If heavy rains in the Midwest and heavy pollution near Baton Rouge would have lined up, the Dead Zone could have been even larger this year, said Dr. Nancy Rabalais, who leads the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and the annual efforts to measure the Dead Zone.


"If the heavy rains in the upper Midwest in June and the record high nitrate concentration in the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge on July 18 had coincided with a later survey, chances are that the area would have been larger," she wrote. "The high phytoplankton biomass and large area of fresher water would have eventually led to more bottom-water hypoxia."


At the end of July, Rabalais and the team of reseachers embark on a hypoxia survey cruise. This year was the 30th edition, with measurements taken from July 27-Aug. 2.

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