Oh, snap. The growing demand for ethanol vis a vis King Corn is driving more and more farmers to plant more and more corn.
The problem is that the nitrogen-heavy fertilizers used to grow that much more corn are finding their way down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. It is here that the nitrogen chokes the aquatic life by fostering algae blooms. The algae then dies and sinks, sucking up oxygen in order to decompose. With less oxygen in the water, many species are dying or moving further and further out into the Gulf.
As reported by the Associated Press:
Corn is more “leaky” than crops such as soybean and alfalfa – that is, it absorbs less nitrogen per acre. The prime reasons are the drainage systems used in corn fields and the timing of when the fertilizer is applied.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that up to 210 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizer enter the Gulf of Mexico each year. Scientists had no immediate estimate for 2007, but said they expect the amount of fertilizer going into streams to increase with more acres of corn planted.
So yes, biofuels are great and all, but as with most “quick fixes” that the US seems to love, there is a downside. And this is happening in a part of the US that has more than enough problems already. The Gulf of Mexico States’ economies depend on the “harvest” from the Gulf, much as the Corn Belt States depend on the corn harvest. Again from the AP.
Bottom-dwelling species such as crabs and oysters are most at risk, said Michelle Perez, an analyst with the Washington-based Environmental Working Group. “They struggle to survive,” Perez said. “They can’t swim away.”
Crabbers complained at a meeting in Louisiana earlier this year that they pulled up bucket upon bucket of dead crabs.
And really, this news is not new. The Gulf Deadzone was first noticed in 1985. But it seems that things are just getting worse lately. This is from a 2005 article on Live Science.
We saw no hypoxia in this area until June of last year, and this year we found it in late March,” Steve DiMarco of Texas A&M University said Tuesday. “If the physical conditions we noticed continue, it could mean an unusually strong hypoxic zone this year, and that’s not good news.
I looked at five years of satellite data,” said Stanford researcher Mike Beman. “There were roughly four irrigation events per year, and right after each one, you’d see a bloom appear within a matter of days.
The other study last year, of the Gulf of Mexico, was led by Texas A&M researcher Antonietta Quigg.
“Levels of nitrogen in Gulf waters are especially high in the spring and summer, when fertilizers are most frequently used,” Quigg said. “We still have a lot of work to do, but it looks like fertilizer runoffs remain the culprit in helping to create this large dead zone.”
The 2007 corn season saw the most corn planted since 1944, so it will be interesting, and not to mention scary, to see how the Gulf is affected this winter.
By new contributor Rachael Neile-Mcgrew.