Nutrient-enhanced productivity in the northern Gulf of Mexico: past, present and future
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Nutrient over-enrichment in many areas around the world is having pervasive ecological effects on coastal ecosystems. These effects include reduced dissolved oxygen in aquatic systems and subsequent impacts on living resources. The largest zone of oxygen-depleted coastal waters in the United States, and the entire western Atlantic Ocean, is found in the northern Gulf of Mexico on the Louisiana/Texas continental shelf influenced by the freshwater discharge and nutrient load of the Mississippi River system. The mid-summer bottom areal extent of hypoxic waters (<2 mg l−1 O2) in 1985–1992 averaged 8000 to 9000 km2 but increased to up to 16 000 to 20 700 km2 in 1993–2001. The Mississippi River system is the dominant source of fresh water and nutrients to the northern Gulf of Mexico. Mississippi River nutrient concentrations and loading to the adjacent continental shelf have changed in the last half of the 20th century. The average annual nitrate concentration doubled, and the mean silicate concentration was reduced by 50%. There is no doubt that the average concentration and flux of nitrogen (per unit volume discharge) increased from the 1950s to 1980s, especially in the spring. There is considerable evidence that nutrient-enhanced primary production in the northern Gulf of Mexico is causally related to the oxygen depletion in the lower water column. Evidence from long-term data sets and the sedimentary record demonstrate that historic increases in riverine dissolved inorganic nitrogen concentration and loads over the last 50 years are highly correlated with indicators of increased productivity in the overlying water column, i.e. eutrophication of the continental shelf waters, and subsequent worsening of oxygen stress in the bottom waters. Evidence associates increased coastal ocean productivity and worsening oxygen depletion with changes in landscape use and nutrient management that resulted in nutrient enrichment of receiving waters. A steady-state model, calibrated to different observed summer conditions, was used to assess the response of the system to reductions in nutrient inputs. A reduction in surface layer chlorophyll and an increase in lower layer dissolved oxygen resulted from a reduction of either nitrogen or phosphorus loading, with the response being greater for nitrogen reductions.
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