Tag Archives: Dubravko Justic

Regime shifts in the Gulf of Mexico

Regime shifts in the Gulf of MexicoEugene Turner, Nancy Rabalais, and Dubravko Justic‘s recent article Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia: Alternate States and a Legacy (Env. Sci. Tech., 2008 42(7) 2323–2327) suggests that benthic carbon in the coastal benthic may be a critical slow variable regulating coastal hypoxia. As organic matter accumulates in sediments it demands increasing amounts of oxygen, making the area more vulnerable to nutrient driven hypoxia.

The Gulf of Mexico is one of the most studied coastal hypoxic zones in the world, but it is not the only one. The number of these zones has greatly increased, primarily due to agricultural expansion and intensification (one of the many ways that agriculture has been driving ecological regime shifts). The authors compare changes in coastal hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico to that found in the Baltic Sea, which has also been suggested to have undergone a regime shift. The authors conclude:

… there has been a system-wide response to the combination of organic buildup in the sediments and higher nitrogen loading, which has increased the area of hypoxia generated for a given nitrogen load and has increased the opportunity for hypoxia to develop. The results discussed above demonstrate that the average [nitrogen] loading of the 1980s would result in a hypoxic zone that is twice as large in the past decade.

…Hypoxia has well-documented catastrophic consequences to the benthos, including animals with multiyear life spans, and creates large areas without commercial quantities of shrimp and fish. The changes in the Mississippi River-influenced continental shelf over the last 30–40 years should be considered to a shift to an alternate state in the sense that (A) the threshold for hypoxia development has been exceeded on a continuing basis and the size of the hypoxic zone has increased and may be approaching its maximum size, given physical constraints on shelf geometry (e.g., width, depth, and length); and (B) the return to a previous system state is more difficult the longer that the current level of nutrient loading is stable or increasing.

… respiratory demand in the sediments remains a legacy influencing water quality of the eutrophied continental shelf in the northern Gulf of Mexico. …The goal of reducing the size of the hypoxic zone to 5000 km2 thus becomes more difficult to achieve for every year without a significant reduction in nutrient loading. Each year without reducing the nutrient loading rates means that it will take longer to realize the Action Plan goal, because the legacy of accumulated organic matter and its respiratory demand increases with time.