Reviving the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico

The Gulf of Mexico is expected to get hit by one of the largest “dead zones” on record this July.

A dead zone is a low-to-no oxygen area of water often created by human pollution. Without oxygen, most marine life dies and the entire food web spirals into disarray.   


Unlike the blatant damage the BP oil spill caused almost a decade ago, this is a death by a thousand cuts, each one coming from a farm along the largest river in the world: the Mississippi. Synthetic fertilizers discharge nutrients, mainly nitrogen and phosphorus, that are poisonous in excess. Runoff is then carried by the river into the Gulf, triggering algal blooms that explode, die off, then use up most– sometimes all– of the oxygen in the process of decomposition.


This can happen so fast that fish suffocate while trying to escape. The slower creatures, such as crustaceans, are doomed to die in a state of hypoxia, or lack of oxygen. In addition, the accumulated layers of algae block the sun from photosynthetic phytoplankton– the beings that provide half of the Earth's oxygen. Thus, waters once teeming with life, become void, except for a few resilient microorganisms.

Human Pollution

Dead zones have increased more than tenfold in the last century. Since the 1950s, the presence of nitrogen has tripled and the amount of phosphorus in the water has doubled. This correlates with a rise in human activity, and more specifically, with the proliferation of the meat industry.

In 2017, meat conglomerates Tyson and Smithfield were accused of spawning the largest Gulf dead zone ever recorded. As the industry has expanded to meet the demand of corporations like McDonald’s and Walmart, they’ve plowed vast plots of America’s heartland to make room for soy and corn fields that feed farm animals. Their facilities have changed the surrounding environment for the worse.  


Studies have shown that the highest levels of nitrate pollution in our waterways can be traced back to these meat suppliers. So, not only does the booming meat industry poison the air, it destroys marine life and even infects our drinking water. The good news is that these companies have been responsive to customer feedback, as was exemplified when Tyson announced a new vegan product. The better news is that dead zones can be reversed.

Turning the Tides

The Black Sea in the Balkans was previously the largest dead zone in the world. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, chemical fertilizers became too expensive, and as farming declined over the next decade, the dead zone shrank. Even though the reversal was unintentional, there are places where deliberate action delivered positive results.

New York was once a favorable stop along the annual migration trail of Humpback Whales, but overfishing and pollution drove them away in the ’70s. In an effort to clean up the Hudson River, government officials implemented new runoff rules and fishing regulations. Cleaner waters brought life back to New York, starting with the little guys like phytoplankton, and then the rest of the food chain– including whales. These majestic creatures have returned in droves over the last decade, after a hiatus that lasted nearly half a century.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in conjunction with farmers in middle America, hope to achieve a similar restoration in the Gulf and the rivers that lead there. Companies like Cargill are building embankments that reduce harmful runoff and protect wildlife habitats. Farmers are also planting more sustainable crops like wheat, which withhold nutrients and increase biodiversity.

This is not just a problem for the Mississippi River or the Gulf of Mexico. Some of America’s largest Rivers, from the Missouri to the Arkansas, all lead to the Mississippi. The effects of pollution extend much farther than a droplet of contamination, but so do the ripples of our actions. We can turn the tides, for better or for worse.


The Ocean’s Most Important Lifeforms Are Suffocating Under the Weight of Our Actions– But We Can Help

Life would not be possible without the ocean. 50-80% of life on Earth lives in the ocean, including the creatures that generate every other breath we take: phytoplankton. Aside from providing crucial oxygen, these blue-green bacteria are the foundation of marine life. They feed everything from plankton to humpback whales. The food chain would fall apart without this crucial link, so the fact that we’ve lost over 40% of phytoplankton in the last century is a threat to life itself. 


The ocean is our best defense against climate change, but it’s also vulnerable. It stores a quarter of all emissions and absorbs 90% of the heat on our warming planet. However, rising temperatures are disrupting delicate ecosystems, like the Great Barrier Reef, which has lost 89% of its baby coral to mass bleaching. Most of the blame belongs to large-scale fossil fuel consumption, a solution that requires better regulations, but there are things we can do to minimize our own impact. 


Reducing Your Carbon Footprint


  1. Ride a bike. You can save a pound of carbon dioxide for every mile you don’t drive. 

  2. Plant a tree. One tree will absorb one ton of CO2 over the course of its life. 

  3. Recycle. By recycling just half of your household waste, you can save up to 2,400 pounds of carbon dioxide.

  4. Compost. Landfills are one of the biggest emitters of methane, which traps heat at 25 times the rate of CO2. 


Cutting Back on Plastic


Greenhouse gases are a huge threat to our oceans, and plastic only compounds the effect. Studies have shown that an entire garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the ocean every minute. This may be hard to envision, but the picture becomes painfully clear when you see the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.


Much of the decline in the phytoplankton comes from plastic pollution. Phytoplankton float near the ocean surface, absorbing sunlight for energy. However, plastic clouds the surface, blocking out the sun and suffocating the very beings that give us breathe. 


It is quite ironic that we are hurting the very thing that hydrates us with the ways we hydrate. Luckily, we have the power to control our plastic use. There are so many great alternatives, from metal water bottles to mason jars, and we can influence companies to join the growing wave of bio-degradable packaging. If saving the oceans isn’t enough to stop you from cutting back on plastic, hopefully this video of Jason Momoa from Aquaman will scare you into action.


In the same way that itty bitty phytoplankton can affect the health of all marine life, our actions matter, no matter how small. Every ounce of greenhouse gas and every plastic bottle saved is a win for our planet. Fighting to reduce our impact is crucial to the future of our planet, but it’s also important to remind ourselves what we’re fighting for. So, if you’re lucky enough to live by one of these beautiful bodies of water, celebrate this World Ocean’s Day with a swim. Bask in the beauty of your human birthright and be grateful– because we could lose it all if we’re not careful.  


3 Ways Eating Beef Causes Climate Change – and How You Can Help


Memorial Day marks the beginning of barbecue season in the United States. From now until Labor Day, the population will eat over 800 hot dogs per second on average. That’s a whopping seven billion hot dogs in one summer. Yet, those numbers are nothing compared to America’s biggest BBQ favorites: burgers and steaks.


The US is the world’s top beef consumer at a rate of four times the national average, but countries like China are catching up. Demand for beef is rising across the developing world and could grow 88% by 2050, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Because beef is a resource-intensive process, this trend undermines any hope for future sustainability.


3 Ways Cows Cause Climate Change


1. One cheeseburger uses 660 gallons of water. That’s two months of showers for one person. More than half of the US’s water goes to animal agriculture, and the global meat and dairy industry uses a third of the Earth’s fresh water.


2. Beef production emits 20 times as many greenhouse gases as common plants. Every minute, seven billion pounds of excrement are expelled by farm animals raised in the US. From burps to manure, their waste gives off methane, which traps 25 times as much as heat as carbon.


3.  Cattle Farming is the leading cause of deforestation. Latin America is a top beef exporter and they’re expanding to meet increasing demand. This is bad news for the Amazon, considering that farmers clear a land mass the size of Massachusetts every year to make way for cattle farms. They often burn trees to make space, which not only eliminates necessary carbon-consuming trees, it also releases the carbon they had stored.


Beef production's contribution to climate change is often understated because the statistics don’t include the effects of land loss. They also don’t consider the consequences of land used to feed cattle, or the resulting devastation of wildlife habitats. A study from the World Resources Institute found that, with all factors calculated, the environmental footprint of the average American diet is close to the amount of greenhouses gases used by non-agricultural energy use– the leading cause of climate change. The good news? Our choices matter.



How You Can Help


If every other burger Americans ate was plant-based, we could at least eliminate the need for further deforestation. Per-capita beef consumption has already dropped by a third since the 1970s, and the meat-substitute industry is growing rapidly. Plant-based meat is now an accessible reality thanks to brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Not to mention, clean meat, which is cultivated in a lab using animal cells, is on the near horizon. Beef-lovers can satisfy their taste buds while minimizing environmental impact.


These innovations could be a saving grace for the health of our plant, and for the 56 billion animals slaughtered every year. If you’re a BBQ-loving American, trying throwing an Impossible Burger on the grill this summer, or maybe a less environmentally-intensive meat like chicken. Our dietary choices can ensure that future generations will also get the chance to celebrate our cherished holidays.


Consumers have the power to sway corporations with every dollar spent. This year, the CEO of Tyson Foods announced that they will start manufacturing their own meat substitute, stating “plant protein is growing faster than animal protein, we want to be where the consumer is.” If public opinion can influence one of the biggest meat distributors in the world, there’s no limit to what we can achieve.

How Much Would You Pay for Every Other Breath You Take?

It’s this very specific combination of conditions that ensure that phytoplankton can remain in their favorite sunny hangout and continue to provide more than 50% of the oxygen we breathe. But something alarming is happening to phytoplankton. Researchers report that the global population of phytoplankton has fallen approximately 40% since 1950.