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Clean Coastal Waters: Understanding and Reducing the Effects of Nutrient Pollution
the summer of 1999, the hypoxic area in the Gulf of Mexico had grown to an area of 20,000 km2 (Rabalais personal communication).
Researchers studying the Chesapeake Bay have said since the 1980s that the occurrence of hypoxic and anoxic bottom waters has increased in association with nutrient inputs (Taft et al. 1980; Officer et al. 1984). More recent studies examined pollen distribution, diatom diversity, and the concentration of organic carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, and acid-soluble iron in sediment cores from the mesohaline portion of the bay (Cooper and Brush 1991). The cores represented a 2,000-year history of the bay. Changes in the concentration of organic components and pollen abundance coincided with the new settlement by Europeans in the late 1700s. This period was marked by major land clearing in the watershed, which likely promoted increases rates of sedimentation, mineralization, and nitrification, and an increase in agricultural activity and the use of manures. Analysis of the sediment cores indicated a shift in the phytoplankton community from centric to pennate diatoms for this time period, and this was interpreted as evidence of increased nutrient input to the bay. This historical perspective indicates a role for nutrients in the occurrence of hypoxia in Chesapeake Bay. As discussed in Chapter 5, the input of nutrients to Chesapeake Bay has probably accelerated even more in the last several decades due to increased use of inorganic fertilizer and increased combustion of fossil fuels and the resulting atmospheric deposition of nitrogen.
The northern Adriatic Sea and northern Gulf of Mexico are two other coastal systems that have experienced increasing episodes of hypoxia (Justic et al. 1993; Turner and Rabalais 1994). Both systems are affected by river flow, the Po River in the case of the former and the Mississippi River in the latter. In both systems researchers have documented a seasonal increase in primary productivity in surface waters that was related to nutrients and river flow; this increase was followed by hypoxia in the bottom waters. The hypoxia onset, however, lagged peak river flow in the Gulf of Mexico and Adriatic Sea by two and four months, respectively. This difference in the lag period was ascribed to greater depth of the water column in the Adriatic Sea and differences in the downward flux of organic matter. Again, the evidence showed that the introduction of new nutrients in the river flow contributed to the development of hypoxia in these systems, but stratification of the water column was a necessary condition.
There also is evidence that increased nutrient loading has contributed to the occurrence of hypoxia in Florida Bay and the Florida Keys (Lapointe at al. 1990; Lapointe and Clark 1992). The most severe cases of hypoxia were found in the canal and seagrass systems closest to the discharge areas. Increased nitrogen levels were associated with increased growth of nutrient-limited phytoplankton, whereas high levels of soluble reactive P