The “dead zone” of the Gulf of Mexico | Nancy Rabalais

Good evening, welcome to New Orleans. I don’t know if you knew this, but you are sitting within 15 minutes
of one of the largest rivers in the world: the Mississippi river. Old Man River, Big Muddy. And it goes as far north
as the state of Minnesota, as far east as the state of New York, as far west as Montana. And 100 miles from here, river miles, it empties its fresh water and sediments
into the Gulf of Mexico. That’s the end of Geography 101. (Laughter) Now we’re going to go
to what is in that water. Besides the sediment, there are dissolved
molecules, nitrogen and phosphorus. And those, through a biological process, lead to the formation
of areas called dead zones. Now, dead zone is a quite ominous word if you’re a fish or a crab. (Laughter) Even a little worm in the sediments. Which means that there’s not enough oxygen for those animals to survive. So, how does this happen? The nitrogen and the phosphorus stimulate the growth of microscopic plants
called phytoplankton. And small animals called zooplankton
eat the phytoplankton, small fish eat the zooplankton,
large fish eat the small fish and it goes on up into the food web. The problem is that there’s just too much
nitrogen and phosphorus right now, too much phytoplankton
falling to the bottom and decomposed by bacteria
that use up the oxygen. That’s the biology. Now, you can’t see it
from the surface of the water, you can’t see it in satellite images, so how do we know it’s there? Well, a trawler can tell you, when she puts her net over the side
and drags for 20 minutes and comes up empty, that she knows she’s in the dead zone. And she has to go somewhere else. But where else do you go
if this area is 8,000 square miles big? About the size of the state of New Jersey. Well, you either make
a decision to go further, without much economic return, or go back to the dock. As a scientist, I have access
to high-tech equipment that we can put over the side
of the research vessel, and it measures oxygen
and many more things. We start at the Mississippi River, we crisscross the Gulf of Mexico
all the way to Texas, and even I sneak into Texas
every now and then and test their waters. And you can tell by the bottom oxygen — you can draw a map
of everything that’s less than two, which is the magic number
for when the fish start to leave the area. I also dive in this dead zone. We have oxygen meters
that we have to deploy offshore that tell us continuous measurements
of low oxygen or high oxygen. And when you get into the water,
there’s a lot of fish. Tons of fish, all kinds of fish, including my buddy here,
the barracuda that I saw one day. Everybody else swam this way
and I went this way with my camera. (Laughter) And then, down at 30 feet
you start to see fewer fish. And then you get to the bottom. And you don’t see any fish. There’s no life on the platform,
there’s no life swimming around. And you know you’re in the dead zone. So, what’s the connection
between the middle of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico? Well, most of the watershed is farmland. And in particular, corn-soybean rotation. The nitrogen that is put in fertilizers
and the phosphorus goes on the land and drains off into the Mississippi River and ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. There’s three times more
nitrogen in the water in the Mississippi now, than there was in the 1950s. Three times. And phosphorus has doubled. And what that means is more phytoplankton
and more sinking sails and lower oxygen. This is not a natural feature of the Gulf;
it’s been caused by human activities. The landscape is not what it used to be. It used to be prairies and forests
and prairie potholes and duck areas and all kinds of stuff. But not anymore — it’s row crops. And there are ways that we can address
this type of agriculture by using less fertilizer,
maybe precision fertilizing. And trying some sustainable agriculture such as perennial wheatgrass,
which has much longer roots than the six inches of a corn plant, that can keep the nitrogen on the soil
and keep the soil from running off. And how do we convince
our neighbors to the north, maybe 1,000 miles away or more, that their activities are causing problems
with water quality in the Gulf of Mexico? First of all, we can take them
to their own backyard. If you want to go swimming
in Wisconsin in the summer in your favorite watering hole, you might find something like this which looks like spilled green paint
and smells like it, growing on the surface of the water. This is a toxic blue-green algal bloom and it is not good for you. Similarly, in Lake Erie,
couple of summers ago there was hundreds of miles
of this blue-green algae and the city of Toledo, Ohio,
couldn’t use it for their drinking water for several days on end. And if you watch the news, you know that lots of communities
are having trouble with drinking water. I’m a scientist. I don’t know if you could tell that. (Laughter) And I do solid science,
I publish my results, my colleagues read them,
I get citations of my work. But I truly believe that, as a scientist, using mostly federal funds
to do the research, I owe it to the public, to agency heads and congressional people to share my knowledge with them so they can use it,
hopefully to make better decisions about our environmental policy. (Applause) Thank you. (Applause) One of the ways that I was able to do this
is I brought in the media. And Joby Warrick
from the “Washington Post” put this picture in an article on the front page, Sunday morning,
two inches above the fold. That’s a big deal. And Senator John Breaux, from Louisiana, said, “Oh my gosh, that’s what they think
the Gulf of Mexico looks like?” And I said, “Well, you know,
there’s the proof.” And we’ve go to do something about it. At the same time,
Senator Olympia Snowe from Maine was having trouble with harmful
algal blooms in the Gulf of Maine. They joined forces — it was bipartisan — (Laughter) (Applause) And invited me to give
congressional testimony, and I said, “Oh, all I’ve done
is chase crabs around south Texas, I don’t know how to do that.” (Laughter) But I did it. (Cheers) And eventually, the bill passed. And it was called — yeah, yay! It was called The Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research
and Control Act of 1998. (Laughter) (Applause) Thank you. Which is why we call it
the Snowe-Breaux Bill. (Laughter) The other thing is
that we had a conference in 2001 that was put on by
the National Academy of Sciences that looked at fertilizers,
nitrogen and poor water quality. Our plenary speaker
was the former governor of the state of New Jersey. And she … There was no thinking she wasn’t serious
when she peered at the audience, and I thought,
“Surely she’s looking at me.” “You know, I’m really tired
of this thing being called New Jersey. Pick another state, any state,
I just don’t want to hear it anymore.” But she was able to move the action plan across President George H.W. Bush’s desk so that we had environmental goals and that we were working to solve them. The Midwest does not feed the world. It feeds a lot of chickens, hogs, cattle and it generates ethanol to put into our gasoline, which is regulated by federal policy. We can do better than this. We need to make decisions that make us less consumptive and reduce our reliance on nitrogen. It’s like a carbon footprint. But you can reduce
your nitrogen footprint. I do it by not eating much meat — I still like a little
every now and then — not using corn oil, driving a car that I can put
nonethanol gas in and get better gas mileage. Just things like that
that can make a difference. So I’m challenging, not just you, but I challenge a lot of people,
especially in the Midwest — think about how you’re treating your land
and how you can make a difference. So my steps are very small steps. To change the type
of agriculture in the US is going to be many big steps. And it’s going to take political
and social will for that to happen. But we can do it. I strongly believe
we can translate the science, bridge it to policy and make
a difference in our environment. We all want a clean environment. And we can work together to do this so that we no longer have
these dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. Thank you. (Applause)

Comments 83

  • Second …idk maybe …I hope

  • Dead zone I thought that wasn't canon. Where my dragon ball z fans at

  • Environmental genius. Hopefully her device can reverse what's left of the BP oil crisis in addition to our river pollution. Excellent Talk!

  • Keep in mind that we are in a beautiful stationary flat Earth. The globe Earth society Doctrine is just fantasy…

  • holy Toledo

  • TED looks more and more like a cult..

  • "Just plug the damn hole!"

  • Well if there wasent 7 billion people we would not need so many farms

  • All the people on the organic craze are actually contributing to the use of more pesticides and fertilizers. There's 20 artificial ingredients that are allowed to grow organic. Gmo is still healthier if you read the science.

    The video is not directly about that but it's relevant. There are other contributors to the problem. Farms for example but, eh it is what it is. Unless you really like beans, peanuts and lentils, there's really no other cheap and tasty alternative to meat.

  • Next on Shark Week… nothing.

  • Thank you for this beautiful talk!

  • What can the farmers use instead?

  • These are a few EASY things I did to save the environment/money: 1. switched from incandescent to LED light bulbs 2. Added additional insulation to attic 3. Put TV's and computers on power strips and turn them off when not in use AND here are some harder things I did: 1. Installed my own solar power system that runs our house 2. built a solar water heater for $40 3. built a solar pool heater AND next I am going to trade my gas guzzling truck for a electric car and drive it for free by charging it with my home solar power. You can save a LOT of money while helping the environment!

  • Hurrah for Nancy Rabalaise! What a hero👍❤️❤️❤️

  • Such a very informative talk. Thank you Dr. Rabalais for your efforts, for going above and beyond your responsibility as a scientist – not letting your research findings just be confined in the academic and scientific community but you made ways for these findings to reach the media and policy makers, thereby resulting in ways (or policy making) that help protect and sustain our environment. As a woman of science, I am inspired with what you did and hopefully, I can also make a good impact in the near future with my research.

  • A Wonderful talk. Thanks so much for all your work.

  • And people still make fun of vegans.

  • i want to watch this but its boring me for some reason. I love TED Talks but it just seems slow.
    Ill download it and play it at faster speed once i get home.

  • Animal agriculture is one of the main causes of climate change, deforestation and ocean dead zones.

  • US farmers are incentivized to chase the almighty dollar. They must instead improve their soil quality and substitute mycorrhizal fungi for fertilizers where appropriate and rotate the land with regenerative polyculture.

  • You mean Corpus Christi?

  • Sad.

  • To be less consumptive- golden words!

  • Going vegan is a good place to start

  • I liked this talk and would like to see a follow up on it in the future. It actually got me engaged and curious to learn on the subject. A very important subject and great talk!

  • Elementary. Protective zones of 10 ft to river banks with no farming allowed, better treatment of sewage water. That's it.

  • Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea by [reason of] what the hands of people have earned so He may let them taste part of [the consequence of] what they have done that perhaps they will return [to righteousness]. (Surah Ar Rum. Verse 41)

  • how many times did she say dead zone?

  • You can tell this lady knows her stuff; thanks for all of the good work & advocacy that you do for us in Louisiana ma’am!

  • Good luck getting Pruitt to do anything.

  • animal agriculture, that's the reason why I'm vegan

  • I agree with what she says but we need those chemicals to grow food to feed the world. So, I'd say that the primary problem is over population. Lower the population and you'll lower the need to grow food. Then you'll need less chemicals.

  • How can you say it is not natural when it is caused by human activity!?!?!
    Do you not understand the definition of the word natural???

  • No meat?

  • Great ideas we so need, but was saddened as never once did I hear the word, ORGANIC.

  • It's interesting… but… is she drunk ???

  • If you want to convince farmers first you need to be able to understand agriculture. Many environmentalists do not understand the basics of farming crops or livestock and make obvious (to an agriculturalist or farmer). I would also include environmental scientists with no cross disciplinary education.
    For example she mentioned perennial wheat crops as an an alternative. Thats embarrassing as there is no perennial wheat as a viable commercial crop (research into developing that crop has been going on but all have failed in commercial application, e.g yields 1/3 that of conventional). She briefly mentions targeted fertiliser, which is leaping ahead.
    As for "not feeding the world", all bar ethanol she lists are food. Bizarrely being proud of not using ethanol (instead using more fossil fuels) is counter productive for our oceans as it only increases the rate of climate change. Not using a oil with one of the highest production per hectare meaning more land must be converted to oil crops (palm oil is great yea?) is equally counter productive.
    As an agriculturalist with an environmental background, I can tell you farmers and agricultural scientists are doing far more in a day then all her suggestions will do. They are trying much harder to "translate scientific research into the real world" than these suggestions or lobbying. But you'll never hear a TEDtalk about it (and no before someone says neither Savory or Salatin are what I'd consider significant in this area)

  • Listing to the volume 2 of #1neLeVeLUP he's amazing

  • Unthinkable that we could have a bipartisan environmental bill passed today

  • Hijos de puta contaminan mi golfo jajjaja
    I'm from Mexico

  • Thank You Nancy Rabalais, for your work and your effort. Would have been nice had you included a rate of "dead zone" growth or expansion" also would have been nice if you might have shared any information about any place (on the planet) that has already stopped or reversed this problem. BUT all effort toward resolving this Huge problem is appreciated. Love & Peace to All

  • My mini-steps are: being vegan; not having kids; not flying for fun; car-sharing; not buying superfluous rubbish; recycling and composting everything I can.

  • Balance between natural reproduction and products by our current life within flats and cars is one of the top most important issue for us within the next upcoming 50 years …

  • Fake News

  • What we need are artificial wetlands and ponds to collect field runoff, and separate the fields and drainage ditches from lakes and rivers. Collect the nitrogen and phosphorus, then respray it back onto the field on the high slope side. In the long run, this saves the farmer money, by capturing and reusing the escaping nutrients.

  • And this is important because…

  • Well even though u maynot be in mexico u are already in the Death zone psycology and all u know dying age hahaha

  • 1:57 "food web"

  • "sneaking into Texas" …like a Mexican? #pun #shotsfired
    And I don't know how old this woman is, but she is delivering KOs left and right. #og

  • We can all do our little contribution that will eventually make an impact! I do it and I’m constantly trying to do more thank you for this video! ❤️

  • This is due to global warming

  • Do other schools not teach this in earth science?

  • I'm hardly vegetarian or vegan, but I do have a (what I consider to be) low animal-product intake (not counting cheese, butter, & eggs, though I do try to buy those free range, grass fed, cage free, and organic.) There's got to be a point where the shocking amount of waste we generate (ie: throwing food away because we didn't want left-overs, making portions too massive, offering too much food and throwing away what was unpopular, etc) has to impact the amount of food we produce. I think about how many cattle, fish, pork, and poultry we slaughter and process, and then how much of it goes straight into the trash can. I remember reading that some 30% of all food in the USA is thrown away. Imagine 30% less catch, slaughter, or production…if only people didn't buy what they were going to toss anyway, or if portions were smaller.

  • Couple of months late but, and this comes with a limited knowledge of growing crops, would changing agricultural practices to include companion plants make a difference? Being North America and corn, squash comes to mind from the Native American 'three sisters' planting. Would a companion plant help soak up the excess before it has a chance to reach the water table?

  • contain and reduce by lifting fixed carbon levels

  • To help the fish have 1,000 ships pump air in to dead zone sea before it become a completely dead of all fish , Instead of just talking about it

  • Hello, Can I use this video for a documentary I'm doing about Dead Zones? thx

  • GOD warned of this in the Bible. The soil was supposed to rest every 7 years. Plants were supposed to grow for a couple years before eating the fruit. The Greed of People over farmed then used chemical means to keep everything going. This is finally the end result. Work with the world. Or we All Will DIE. Stupid greedy Humans Peace. Jc

  • It's all the toxic sewage and the added bleach that is released in all of these sewage plants and off shore pipes ALL OVER that is destroying the waters and earth. Too many zombie like non caring humans that keep on going along with this. RIvers, creeks, oceans etc should all be our pure and sacred spots to cleanse, drink and bath, not toxic shitholes which are mass polluted. The Indians had it correct in this aspect and the stupid war mongoring greeding white europeans are f'in it all up. But those who care will be ok, it's those that ignore this and keep going along with the greed and pollution and just making money that will dissaper.


  • Really god work

  • We are dooomed!!!
    She is awesome but her information is incomplet!
    70% of the polution that we make today is due to animal agriculture!
    The food is beeing procesed in a wrong way, it creats a loot of health isues for people, and the enviorment, she scraped but the surface!

    The fact that we humans think that we need meat to thrive is not true!!! Its a bad habit like smoeking and drinking boozz till you fall down.
    Iron, b 12, vitamin proteins come from the plant kingdom.
    They nurish the people the best, and easyest for the enviorment, wild life, forest and also human health!!

    The fact that we have to ciccle our food intake trough another being is not needed. A wholesome plant based diet is what the human. Tribes best on.

    Remember the ocean dead zones, water pollution come from you being a slave to the current sistem. No one wants to plant trees or live with his farm because we city folk we don't know how!
    Please do some research or ask me personally about this topics.
    CowSpiracy, what the health and forks over knifes are the best focus to watch go gwet what's happening today!

    If you don't watch the documentations ask me for more Info's

  • The Mississippi River is a Sanitary Canal for semi-treated sludge Northern Cities like Chicago. Red Tide is Man Made!

  • Thank you very educational. What elements of matter can break down the nitrogen and phosphorus in the ocean's dead zone? They are both odd number elements so what even number elements will combine to form a compound element like water one elements of hydrogen an odd number element and two elements of oxygen even number element?

  • She neglected to mention the contribution from Monsanto . Round up ! May prove to be very , very toxic to all forms of life

  • Thanks, Nancy; I for one also do the same things you mentioned…non-ethanol gas & very little meat. I also filter all my drinking water out of the tap.
    Personal steps for many would be important, but the Mogul businesses are not interested in the condition of the planet, but only in their own personal wealth. Until that changes, nothing will happen to improve the situation.
    Great report, by the way….

  • VOTE!!!

  • Ok.
    Let's not trade.
    Let's pay a lot more for food and let's stop everything.
    See,,,if you are going to have 8billion people
    You going to mess stuff up
    Food is kind of important our massive export.

    Modern industry, vaccines, medical and pharmaceutical advancement advanced farming
    Society is a short lived endeavor. Wait till we have 10 billion people.
    You great at telling everyone what to do
    You just stop trade, China owns Swift pork…we export ag product
    But hey who cares

  • "we can do better than this" . . . we sure can!
    Back in the day we used to FIX THINGS! Try and find a small appliance repair shop now.
    If you do . . . you may well hear "it's cheaper to buy another one" . . . . . .
    OH REALLY!!!!!!!

    Taking the profit out of capitalism and replacing it with equal value would put all the world's super rich into
    bankruptcy immediately.

  • “Louisiana America’s Industry Waist Land”

  • I'm no scientist, (my life long friend Dr.Fred Sharpe is) but I studied marine biology, oceanography, as well as environmental science, better act fast or there will be people coming after your food.

  • What concerns me most about ocean dead zones is the possibility that they will begin to emit high-level of toxic methane gas.

  • So much respect for Dr Rabalais and her work. I'd like to add that turf fertilization causes much of this as well:

  • Good luck with getting fish on the other side of the country to change chemicals. Unless they have the same cost and outcome. I live by the beginning of sciota river. Are river is trash. There's barley any fish besides carp and some blue cats, that I've seen. The only time we get bass and bluegill are spawning season. Then you can see a negative difference in river fish compared to quary. I can think of so many ways that would possibly resolve this. But the problem should be fixed where it's starting first.

  • Hmm you forgot to mention the human Factor! Southside of Chicago on the Banks of Lake Michigan is the Sanitation and Shipping Canal. It runs into the Illinois River and then the Mississippi River. Every city along the way dumps their influent (liquid from municipal water treatment plants) into the rivers!

  • no one is going to do anything. If people were interested in change, they'd already ban single use plastics and other petro-chemical. They would have invested heavily in sustainable fertilizers and farming practices rather than playing politics. They would have banned gas cars. All of this would have already been on their way to implementation but money talks, bullshit walks and at the end of the day everyone only care about themselves – myself included.

  • for being called dead zone has anybody made a Garlic Jr – DBZ joke

  • Cut the River s off gulf of Mexico

  • All the likes are from Leviathans

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