With over 125 million gallons of oil floating around in the water and a tropical storm set to hamper cleanup efforts, the Gulf of Mexico has enough problems, but you can add yet another to the list: this year's dead zone is going to reach the size of New Jersey, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Though it's still unclear how the oil spill might affect the massive oxygen-starved zone in the Gulf, the NOAA is predicting that the area will measure between 6,500 and 7,800 square miles – significantly larger than last year's size, which was smaller than expected.
The Gulf of Mexico dead zone is caused by runoff of nutrients, mostly from fertilizers, which make their way from the Midwest to the Gulf via the Mississippi River.
These nutrients spur an overgrowth of algae which voraciously consumes oxygen as it decomposes on the sea floor, creating a huge area that is inhospitable to sea life – especially bottom dwellers like shrimp, which are a big part of the Gulf region's economy.
“The oil spill could enhance the size of the hypoxic zone through the microbial breakdown of oil, which consumes oxygen, but the oil could also limit the growth of the hypoxia-fueling algae,” R. Eugene Turner, Ph.D., professor of oceanography at Louisiana State University, told the NOAA.
“It is clear, however, that the combination of the hypoxic zone and the oil spill is not good for local fisheries.”
This prediction set forth by the NOAA is based largely on computer models. The 2010 Summer Hypoxia Watch, a project that maps the actual size of each year's dead zone, was delayed due to repairs on the ship but set forth on June 25th.