Potential Solutions For Gulf of Mexico's "Dead Zone" Explored

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Researchers are studying ways to control the rush of nitrogen and other chemicals that flow into the Mississippi River watershed each spring and ultimately turn more than 7,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico into a “dead zone.”

Nitrogen and other nutrients cause hypoxia, or the depletion of oxygen in a body of water. Hypoxia in the Gulf stems from human activities in the Mississippi River watershed, which encompasses more than 40 percent of the United States. A federally-appointed task force is currently looking into ways to manage the hypoxia problem.

“The answers to controlling hypoxia essentially come down to using nature to take care of our problems while protecting its biodiversity,” said William Mitsch, professor of natural resources at Ohio State University. “These solutions embrace ecotechnology, which includes restoring or building wetlands and riparian buffer zones along waterways.”

Mitsch leads one of six task force committees currently studying the hypoxia problem in the Gulf of Mexico. His committee is responsible for developing ways to control the pollution that causes hypoxia in the Gulf. The group presented their preliminary results June 9 at an Ecological Society of America meeting in St. Louis.

“Hypoxia is the result of living in an over-fertilized society,” Mitsch said. “We fertilize the living daylights out of the Midwest.” Ecotechnology may be the answer.

“Ecotechnology establishes some degree of natural landscape between human activity and waterways,” Mitsch said. Riparian zones, belts of vegetation next to a waterway, and wetlands both serve as filtering systems. Each essentially “cleans” runoff water of fertilizer by-products.

Hypoxia happens when excess nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, accumulate in a body of water and cause algae to flourish into algal blooms.

Contact: William Mitsch
Ohio State University

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