What is Dead Zone and How Does Your Diet Affect It?
Gulf of Mexico dead zone in July 2019, Image source: NOAA
Iva is a certified content writer and sustainability impact analyst. Her focus is conservation of environment and biodiversity, clean technology, climate change, vegan lifestyle and active living. Additionally, she is a certified aerobics instructor.
What is a dead zone?
"Dead zone" is a more common term for hypoxia, which refers to a reduced level of oxygen in the water” (source 1).
Dead zones are areas in the world’s oceans and lakes where aquatic life cannot survive because of low oxygen levels.
Dead zones are mainly caused by significant nutrient pollution and generally occur near bays, lakes and coastal waters where they receive excess nutrients from upstream sources (source 2).
As a result most marine life either dies or if they are mobile such as fish or even crabs leave the area. Habitats that would normally be filled with life become biological deserts (source 1).
What causes a dead zone?
Dead zones are caused by a process called eutrophication.
It is present when agricultural runoff, including fertilizers and animal waste, is dumped into rivers or coasts and eventually ends up in the ocean (source 3).
The agricultural runoff contains nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus (source 3) which increase the productivity or fertility of marine ecosystems. That leads to extensive growth of phytoplankton, algae and seaweeds.
The rapid development of these organisms is called algal boom. Algal blooms block light from penetrating the water’s surface and prevent oxygen from being absorbed by organisms beneath them.
Considering that oxygen is necessary for almost all aquatic life, from sea grasses to fish, a dead zone is created beneath the algal bloom, making the entire area uninhabitable and even toxic for anyone in contact with it (source 4).
Agricultural impact on Dead Zones
Scientists have identified that worldwide there are 415 dead zones (source 4).
Hypoxic zones are almost doubling each decade since 1960s (source 5).
In 2019, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico measured 6,952 square miles (source 6).
According to a report by Mighty Earth, the impact of the meat industry to water pollution is enormous with more than a third of all land in continental US dedicated to growing feed crops and providing pastures to raise meat (source 7,p2).
The domestic meat market consumes 70% and 40% of soy and corn respectively, the biggest single market for both of these crops (source 7,p4).
When grasslands are cleared for conversion to corn or soy fields, the natural buffers are removed, leading to increased soil erosion and higher risk of fertilizer pollution form crops planted in these areas (source 7 p-8,10).
Estimated by USDA, each year farmers apply millions of tons of manufactured fertilizer, 40%-80% of which is lost to the environment (source 8).
Besides, livestock generate 13 times more manure than humans in the US. However, livestock manure is generally not treated before it is released into the surrounding environment and end up contaminating waterways (source 7,p6).
“Blue-Green Algae, cyanobacteria, is a result of agricultural fertilizer seeping into a small lake in Finland. It forms a thick mat near the surface of the water, suffocating life underneath it.”
Image source: National Geographic
Animal agriculture plays a major role in contributing to the excess nutrients in waterways where dead zones occur. Switching to a more plant-centric diet is a way to combat environmental degradation, help water and species conservation and improve public health.
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