Dead Zones Are Not Fodder for Science Fiction
Glorious ocean waves blind us with their power and beauty while covering up a global disgrace: our oceans have dead zones, 405 dead zones including the entire Baltic Sea. The number of dead zones is up from just 49 in the 1960s. According to NOAA, a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico grew to the size of New Jersey in 2017. No zombies were reported, but too many dead fish piled up ignore.
An ocean dead zone is simply water that has too little oxygen for fish and the creatures they feed on to survive. The culprit is nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorous — that fertilize crops for greater yields. These nutrients wash into rivers along with rainwater and then to oceans unleashing huge algae blooms. The algae die and decompose, using up oxygen that fish and marine life need to survive. Some fish can swim until they find oxygen and food; many die trying. Fishermen lose livelihoods, and seafood prices rise above the “affordable” mark.
The Chesapeake Bay had a large dead zone, and in 2010, the federal government set mandatory limits on nutrients entering the bay. Farmers howled; states spent billions of dollars; and the Chesapeake Bay is experiencing a revival in marine life.
Only a few other dead zones have recovered. The Black Sea revived in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and a massive decrease in fertilizer runoff from Russia and Ukraine.
A Smithsonian-led study shows that ocean dead zones are increasing because of climate change. As sea levels rise, wetlands are devastated. They are natural buffers, soaking up nutrients from toxic runoff.
Scientific studies have concluded that the dead zone problem can be met by reducing nutrient pollution. Yet, a growing world population must be fed, and fertilizers, mainly nutrients, increase crop yields. Encouraged by real, although difficult, solutions, in 2015 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set a 2025 nutrient reduction goal that involves rebuilding soils and reducing greenhouse gasses. Their five steps, which they call “bold” are as follows:
- Couple crop insurance premium subsidies with the adoption of beneficial practices for nutrient, water and soil outcomes;
- Enable private service providers to drive targeted adoption of beneficial practices;
- Expand and target Farm Bill funding of beneficial practices in high impact areas for reductions in nitrogen loss and soil carbon improvement;
- Drive ballot initiatives or legislative actions to develop new state funds that support adoption of beneficial practices in high impact areas for reductions in nitrogen loss and soil carbon improvement; and
- Direct post-disaster federal funds toward restoration in high impact areas for reduction in nitrogen and flood risk, and soil carbon improvement.
Legislative action to date has been — to put it kindly — wishy-washy.
Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, reports, “Nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the Black Sea have been dramatically reduced…We know that the majority of nutrients [in the Gulf] come from big agribusiness. What we’re missing is the social and political will to reduce nutrient pollution.”
Sciences geared to keeping our planet alive continue to evolve, and social sciences prove that the squeaky wheels get the grease. It is time to take the dead zones out of guarded labs and the dusty halls of academe. We, citizens of planet earth, need to clearly — and loudly — define the problem. Ask yourself how many people you know are aware of dead zones? And then offer scientific facts that prove the solutions. Scientific journals do not deny the problem: reports are becoming more frequent. Solutions are becoming more obvious. But who reads scientific journals unless a research paper or exam is looming?
You can take the problem to social media. #deadzone will get more clicks than #scientistsProveOceansAreDying. You can make it difficult for people, including legislators, to ignore your tweets.
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