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EPA's Report on the Environment: External Review Draft

Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico and Long Island Sound



Note to reviewers of this draft revised ROE: This indicator reflects data through 2012. EPA anticipates updating this indicator in 2014.

Introduction

Nutrient pollution is one of the most pervasive problems facing U.S. coastal waters, with more than half of the nation’s estuaries experiencing one or more symptoms of eutrophication (Bricker et al., 2007; CENR, 2010; NRC, 2000; U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, 2004). One symptom is low levels of dissolved oxygen (DO), or hypoxia. Hypoxia can occur naturally, particularly in areas where natural physical and chemical characteristics (e.g., salinity or mixing parameters) limit bottom-water DO. The occurrence of hypoxia in shallow coastal and estuarine areas appears to be increasing, however, and is most likely accelerated by human activities (Díaz and Rosenberg, 2008; Rabalais et al., 2010).

This indicator tracks trends in hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico and Long Island Sound, which are prime examples of coastal areas experiencing hypoxia. For consistency, this indicator focuses on occurrences of DO below 2 milligrams per liter (mg/L), but actual thresholds for “hypoxia” and associated effects can vary over time and space, depending on water temperature and salinity. Effects of hypoxia on aquatic life also vary, as some organisms are more sensitive to low DO than others. As a general rule, however, concentrations of DO above 5 mg/L are considered supportive of marine life, while concentrations below this are potentially harmful. At about 3 mg/L, bottom fishes may start to leave the area, and the growth of sensitive species such as crab larvae is reduced. At 2.5 mg/L, the larvae of less sensitive species of crustaceans may start to die, and the growth of crab species is more severely limited. Below 2 mg/L, some juvenile fish and crustaceans that cannot leave the area may die, and below 1 mg/L, fish totally avoid the area or begin to die in large numbers (Howell and Simpson, 1994; U.S. EPA, 2000; Vaquer-Sunyer and Duarte, 2008). 

The Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone on the Texas-Louisiana Shelf is the second largest zone of human-caused coastal hypoxia in the world (CENR, 2010; Rabalais et al., 2010). It exhibits seasonally low oxygen levels as a result of complex interactions involving excess nutrients carried to the Gulf by the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers; physical changes in the river basin, such as channeling, construction of dams and levees, and loss of natural wetlands and riparian vegetation; and the stratification in the waters of the northern Gulf caused by the interaction of fresh river water and the salt water of the Gulf (CENR, 2000, 2010; Rabalais and Turner, 2001; U.S. EPA, 2007). Increased nitrogen and phosphorus inputs from human activities throughout the basin support an overabundance of algae, which die and fall to the sea floor, depleting oxygen in the water as they decompose. Fresh water from the rivers entering the Gulf of Mexico forms a layer of fresh water above the saltier Gulf waters and prevents re-oxygenation of oxygen-depleted water along the bottom. Variations in the amount of precipitation falling in the Mississippi River Basin can lead to large differences in the size of the hypoxic zone in the Gulf from one year to the next.

In Long Island Sound, seasonally low levels of oxygen usually occur in bottom waters from mid-July though September, and are more severe in the western portions of the Sound, where the nitrogen load is higher and stratification is stronger, reducing mixing and re-oxygenation processes (CENR, 2010; Welsh et al., 1991). While nitrogen fuels the growth of microscopic plants that leads to low levels of oxygen in the Sound, temperature, wind, rainfall, and salinity can affect the intensity and duration of hypoxia.

Data for the two water bodies are presented separately because they are collected through two different sampling programs, each with its own aims and technical approach. The Gulf of Mexico survey is conducted by the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) and is designed to measure the extent of bottom-water hypoxia in the summer, with samples collected during a cruise that generally occurs over a period of 5 to 7 days in mid- to late July (LUMCON, 2012). Samples are collected day and night along several transects designed to capture the overall extent of the hypoxic zone. The number of locations varies from 60 to 90 per year, depending on the length of the sampling cruise, the size of the hypoxic zone, logistical constraints, and the density of station locations. Long Island Sound sampling is conducted by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection’s Long Island Sound Water Quality Monitoring Program, and is designed to determine both the maximum extent and the duration of hypoxia (Connecticut DEP, 2012). Sampling is performed every month from October to May and every 2 weeks from June to September at a set of fixed locations throughout the Sound. All Long Island Sound samples are collected during the day.

What the Data Show

The size of the midsummer bottom-water hypoxia area (<2 mg/L DO) in the Northern Gulf of Mexico has varied considerably since 1985, ranging from 15 square miles in 1988 (a drought year in the Mississippi Basin) to approximately 8,500 square miles in 2002 (Exhibit 1). In the latest year of sampling, 2012, the hypoxic zone measured 2,889 square miles, the fourth lowest measurement observed since 1985 (Exhibits 1 and 2). The smaller area is a result of the drought conditions across the United States, which caused the freshwater discharge and associated nutrients delivered to the Gulf of Mexico to be below average. Over the full period of record (1985-2012), the area with DO less than 2 mg/L has averaged approximately 5,300 square miles.

The maximum extent and duration of hypoxic events (<2 mg/L DO) in Long Island Sound also has varied considerably since the 1980s (Exhibit 3). Since 1987, the largest area of DO less than 2 mg/L was 212 square miles, which occurred in 1994; the smallest area, 2 square miles, occurred in 1997 (Exhibit 3). The shortest hypoxic event was 6 days in 1990 and the longest was 71 days in 1989 (Exhibit 4). In 2012, the latest year for which data are available, the maximum area and duration of DO less than 2 mg/L in Long Island Sound were 67 square miles and 23 days, respectively (Exhibit 4), with the lowest DO levels occurring in the western end of the Sound (Exhibit 5). Between 1987 and 2012, the average annual maximum extent and duration was 64 square miles and 33 days, respectively.

Limitations

Gulf of Mexico:

  • This indicator is based on a survey conducted over a 5- to 7-day period when hypoxia is expected to be at its maximum extent. The indicator does not capture periods of hypoxia or anoxia (no oxygen at all) occurring at times other than the mid-summer surveys.
  • Because the extent of hypoxia is measured through a single mid-summer sampling cruise, duration cannot be estimated.
  • The survey design and choice of instruments may have led to underestimates of the spatial extent of hypoxia, particularly during the early years of the program (Obenour et al., 2013). Surveys usually end offshore from the Louisiana-Texas state line; in years when hypoxia extends onto the upper Texas coast, the spatial extent of hypoxia is underestimated. Expanded ship days in more recent years have allowed the mapping to extend onto the adjacent Texas coast.

Long Island Sound:

  • Hypoxic or anoxic periods that may occur between the 2-week surveys are not captured in the indicator.
  • Samples are taken in the daytime, approximately 1 meter off the bottom. This indicator does not capture oxygen conditions at night (which may be lower because of the lack of photosynthesis) or conditions near the sediment-water interface.

Data Sources

Maps and summary data from the 2006 to 2012 Gulf of Mexico surveys are published online (LUMCON, 2012). Data from prior years were provided by LUMCON (2007).

Data on the extent and duration of hypoxia in Long Island Sound have not been published, but were compiled by EPA’s Long Island Sound Office (U.S. EPA, 2012). Concentration maps are available online (Connecticut DEP, 2012).

 

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