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Open-File Report 2008-1099

Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone – 1000 Year Record

By L.E. Osterman, R.Z. Poore and P.W. Swarzenski

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An area of oxygen-depleted bottom- and subsurfacewater (hypoxia = dissolved oxygen < 2 mg per Liter) occurs seasonally on the Louisiana shelf near the Mississippi River. The area of hypoxia, also known as the “dead zone,” forms when spring and early summer freshwater flow from the Mississippi River supplies a large amount of nutrients to the shelf while creating a freshwater lens, or cap, above the shelf water. The excess nutrients cause phytoplankton blooms in the shallow shelf water. After the bloom ceases, the organic material sinks in the water column and uses up oxygen during decomposition. Thus, the subsurface waters become oxygen depleted. The seasonal dead zone exists until a reduction in freshwater flow, or overturning by storms, allows mixing of the water column to restore normal oxygen conditions.

Since systematic measurement of the extent of the dead zone was begun in 1985, the overall pattern indicates that the area of the dead zone is increasing. Several studies have concluded that the expansion of the Louisiana shelf dead zone is related to increased nutrients (primarily nitrogen, but possibly also phosphorous) in the Mississippi River drainage basin and is responsible for the degradation of Gulf of Mexico marine habitats. The goal of this research is to augment information on the recent expansion of Louisiana shelf hypoxia and to investigate the temporal and geographic extent of the lowoxygen bottom-water conditions prior to 1985 in sediment cores collected from the Louisiana shelf.

We use a specific low-oxygen faunal proxy termed the PEB index based on the cumulative percentage of three foraminifers (= % Protononion atlanticum, + % Epistominella vitrea, + % Buliminella morgani) that has been shown statistically to represent the modern seasonal Louisiana hypoxia zone. Our hypothesis is that the increased relative abundance of PEB species in dated sediment cores accurately tracks past seasonal low-oxygen conditions on the Louisiana shelf.

First posted May 24, 2010

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Suggested citation:

Osterman, L.E., Poore, R.Z., Swarzenski, P.W., 2008, Gulf of Mexico dead zone–1000 year record: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2008-1099, 2 p.


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