U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
EPA Science Advisory Board
Background Information

Document NameDeclining threshold for hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico.
Document AuthorStow, C.A.
Qian, S.S.
Craig, J.K.
Short DescriptionEnvironmental Science & Technology 39 (3): 716-723.
CategorySubgroup 1: Characterization of the Cause(s) of Hypoxia
Publication Year2005

Abstract: The northwestern Gulf of Mexico shelf has been nicknamed "The Dead Zone" due to annual summertime (May-September) bottom-water hypoxia (dissolved oxygen less than or equal to2 mg L-1) that can be extensive (>20 000 km(2)) and last for several months. Hypoxia has been attributed to eutrophication caused by increasing nitrogen loads, although directly linking hypoxia to nitrogen is difficult. While the areal extent of hypoxia has been shown to increase with Mississippi River flow, it is unclear whether this increase results from enhanced vertical water-column stratification or from eutrophication caused by river-borne nutrients. Disentangling the relative contributions of eutrophication versus stratification has important management consequences. Our analysis indicates that the top:bottom salinity difference is an important predictor of hypoxia, exhibiting a threshold, where the probability of hypoxia increases rapidly, at approximately 4.1 ppt. Using a Bayesian change-point model, we show that this stratification threshold decreased from 1982 to 2002, indicating the degree of stratification needed to induce hypoxia has gone down. Although this declining threshold does not link hypoxia and nitrogen, it does implicate a long-term factor transcending yearly flow-induced stratification differences. Concurrently, we show that surface temperature increased, while surface dissolved oxygen decreased, suggesting that factors in addition to nitrogen may be influencing the incidence of hypoxia in the bottom water.