What does the huge ‘dead zone' in the Gulf mean for us? Our chief meteorologist explains

HOUSTON – Scientists are predicting a near-record Gulf of Mexico "dead zone" where the water holds too little oxygen to sustain marine life.

The record set in 2017 is 8,776 square miles (22,700 square kilometers), a bit smaller than Turkey.

Scientists had said earlier that widespread flooding made a large dead zone likely this year.

Storms before last year's mapping cruise reduced that hypoxic zone to about 2,720 square miles (7,040 square kilometers), about 40% the average size that had been predicted, and among the smallest recorded.

Here's KPRC2 chief meteorologist Frank Billingsley's explanation:

What are dead zones?

Because of the massive flooding this spring, rivers emptying into the Gulf from 31 states are full of fertilizers and waste. That feeds algae but when the algae die, they create more acidic water with less oxygen in it. And without oxygen in the water, sea life there will die -- thus, the Dead Zone.

Fish and shrimp and other ‘swimming’ organisms can leave the area in search of a better habitat, but clams, oysters and slow-moving crustaceans (including crabs) aren’t so lucky. They’ll simply perish.

Why is this year the second worst on record?

The flooding is the problem. The rivers especially around Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, the states that have had massive flooding (have you seen St. Louis lately?), and those floodwaters have tons (literally) of fertilizer from the farming communities.

Those fertilizers contain nitrates and phosphorous, which go into the Mississippi River water and empties into the Gulf.

What does this mean for Galveston?

It depends. Shrimp and fish leaving the dead zone around Louisiana and Mississippi might end up in Galveston Bay and we could have a banner year for shrimping and fishing.

So, until the water stirs up and the dead zone goes away later in the year, then perhaps this will mean an economic boon to our local seafood economy. But that’s no guarantee.

If the dead zone creeps here, then it will be that much harder to find shrimp and fish in our waters.

The Dead Zone is a forecast, not a guarantee and a tropical storm in the gulf could mix the water enough to solve much of the problem, depending of course on where the tropical storm went.

Does this mean we will see more severe weather?

No, this has nothing to do with weather, but everything to do with ecology.

We need to create and use more ecologically friendly fertilizers so that when this flooding happens, it doesn’t take it to the Gulf to create these dead zones in the first place.

About the Authors:

KPRC 2's chief meteorologist with three decades of experience forecasting Houston's weather.