How Will the Gulf’s Dead Zone Impact the Oil Spill?

The Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico may collide with an area already bedeviled by environmental catastrophe, the infamous Dead Zone–an area of essentially no life or oxygen. So what happens when an inexorable oil slick meets and an undead patch of water?

The Gulf’s Dead Zone is about 6,000 to 7,000 square miles, one of the biggest in the world, Microbial Life Educational Resources of Carleton College says. It’s caused by fertilizer run-off in the Mississippi overfeeding algae. Phytoplankton gobble up the algae–and all the oxygen. Scientists call the areas hypoxia–or low oxygen. They can’t support life.

The oil spill so far is smaller, about 1,800 square miles. So far.

Right now the dead zone is west of the Mississippi and the oil spill is east of it. The dead zone is mainly at the bottom, which is littered with phytoplankton carcasses. The oil is on top.

But Nancy N. Rabalais, Ph.D., executive director of Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium thinks they’re likely to meet.

“If the winds continue from the southeast as is common this time of year, then the surface manifestation may move to the west of the Mississippi River delta and become a surface feature of the Louisiana area of hypoxia,” says

Some seem to have fantasized that the oil burn off will end up cleaning up the dead zone. Not so, says Rabalais. “The burn would reduce the more volatile and toxic components,” [in the oil] she says, but not burn off the algae.


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