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Date of Issue: July 26, 2007

Sandscript

Dead zone expansion in north Gulf predicted through summer

There’s bad news to our northwest in the Gulf of Mexico, and unfortunately is will probably get worse.

According to press reports, “A team of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and Louisiana State University is forecasting that the ‘dead zone’ off the coast of Louisiana and Texas this summer, an area of low or no oxygen which can threaten or kill all marine life in it, has the potential to be the largest since measurements began in 1985, and significantly larger than the average size since 1990.”

According to NOAA, “The dead zone is an area in the Gulf where seasonal oxygen levels drop too low to support most life in bottom and near-bottom waters. It is caused by a seasonal change where algal growth, stimulated by input of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers, settles and decays in the bottom waters. The decaying algae consume oxygen faster than it can be replenished from the surface, leading to decreased levels of dissolved oxygen. This hypoxic area is of particular concern because of its potential to affect the valuable Gulf fishery.”

Computer models predict that the zone may reach 8,500 square miles before it dissipates. That area works out to be about the same size as the state of New Jersey. The “normal” dead zone is about 4,800 square miles, although the dead zone was estimated at a bit more than 6,600 square miles last year.

The estimates are based on riverine nitrate loads from May, apparently a time of year for heavy loads of nitrogen to flow into the Gulf.

Remember that something like two-thirds of the United States has stormwater runoff enter the Mississippi River and, eventually, flow into the Gulf. All that goop flows downhill, as the eco-folks like to say, and that meas that the northern Gulf is a near-toxic swamp every summer.

If there is any good news on the dead zone, it’s that NOAA and the rest of the weather watchers are predicting an active hurricane season. Big storms churn up the water and help dissipate the dead zone. Of course, we don’t want any big storms - nor do we want a big dead zone in the Gulf.

 

Remember when?

In August 2005, we had our own dead zone, apparently prompted by a pretty severe red tide outbreak.

An area of Gulf bottom of more than 2,000 square miles from Sarasota to the northern Pasco County line was stressed to the point of near-death of all marine critters by what scientists suspect was an anomaly of the long-term red tide outbreak. The zone ranged from 3 to 30 miles offshore, and to depths of up to 100 feet.

Scientists speculate that the red tide outbreak was impacted by a thermocline, a layer of warmer water pushing down upon a layer of cold bottom water. The thermocline acted as a barrier and prevented the usual vertical interchange of seawater, causing the red tide organisms to just “hang out” near the bottom for an extended period of time.

The result was the death of hard and soft coral, fish, shellfish and other deep-water organisms.

Although red tide can cause death of marine life, another aspect of its impact lies in the fact that the tiny plants tend to suck up all the oxygen in the water, strangling other critters. Low- and no-oxygen levels were found in some of the so-called dead zone, leading researchers to believe that the lack of oxygen also contributed to the overall kill.

It was a disaster that is still in a recovery mode. Now, we’ve got it bad again in the northern Gulf.

However, we don’t have any red tide this year. Yet. Let’s hope not ever again.

 

Power thoughts

Gov. Charlie Crist held his global warming summit a while ago.

For those living in a tent on the beach without TV or radio or newspapers, here’s the short version of the history on the issue: we’ve got too much gas from too many fossil fuel critters - coal-producing energy plants, natural-gas power sources, cars or trucks or SUVs or whatever - which are stripping away our ozone layer in the atmosphere, producing melting of ice caps, increasing sea-level rise, and promising to make the lives of our kids and grandchildren troublesome.

 So the global warming summit by Gov. Crist was somewhat interesting, because he talked about a slew of “green” alternatives to fossil fuel sources of power. There’s solar power. There’s wind-driven power plants to create electricity. There are even some plans proposed that would use ocean currents to propel propellers to power plants to produce energy.

Then Gov. Crist voiced the evil phrase: nuclear power.

Nuclear power plants are the Great Satan when it comes to eco-folks. There are always references to the disaster at Chernobyl in what is now Russia in 1986, the Three Mile Island grief in 1979, and the threat of a meltdown of the world as a result of nuclear power.

And you may remember the global glee a while back when North Korea announced it would halt its nuclear power facility.

The issue of nuclear power to run our AC, our fridges, our lives, is one that isn’t going to be brought up here. Our closest nuke plant is at Crystal River, to our north. It’s been there for a long time and hasn’t produced any real problems.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, the last nuclear power plant built in the United States was in 1996 in Tennessee. It took 22 years to construct, and cost about $7 billion.

The Times reported last week that France has 59 nuclear power plants, which provide about three-quarters of its energy needs.

Is nuclear the way to go? Dunno.

It nuclear an option to consider? Sure.

Is nuclear the best option to consider? Dunno.

It was of interest that last week Gov. Crist announced he had re-powered the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee to run off a hydrogen fuel cell, at a cost of $70,000. Such cells are pretty eco-friendly, emit pretty much nothing but water, but are very, very expensive.

For the Gov’s mansion, it is estimated that it will take about 20 years to have the $70K reach the break-even point versus regular power requirements.

Get hydrogen? Get nuclear? Stick with coal, or natural gas, or whatever?

You decide. But green is better.

 

Sandscript factoid

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, “It is celebrating 200 years of science and service to the nation. From the establishment of the Survey of the Coast in 1807 by Thomas Jefferson to the formation of the Weather Bureau and the Commission of Fish and Fisheries in the 1870s, much of America's scientific heritage is rooted in NOAA.

“NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of the nation's coastal and marine resources.”

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