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Jun 24, 2013 02:40 PM EDT

NOAA Predicts Record-Setting Dead Zone in Gulf of Mexico this Summer

University of Michigan (UM) ecologists are predicting a potentially record-setting dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico this summer, according to a press release on the school's website.

UM and Louisiana State University (LSU), with help from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), developed the annual forecast that predicts an extra large dead zone.

The chief cause of the dead zone is chemical runoff from flooding in the Midwest. The oxygen-depleted, or hypoxic, zone could be anywhere from 7,286 to 8,561 square miles, which would make it one of the ten largest ever recorded.

On the low end of the forecast, the dead zone would be comparable in size to Connecticut, Rhode Island and Washington D.C. combined. On the larger end, the region could be as large as New Jersey.

The runoff contains mostly nitrogen and phosphorus from farmland fertilizer and animal waste from as far away as the Corn Belt, located in the northern region of the Midwest.

A dead zone is an area on the bottom of an ocean or great lake that does not have enough oxygen to sustain life. It is created by algae, stimulated by multiple agricultural nutrients, sinking to the bottom of the body of water. When the algae enter the surface water, an algal bloom is created and as it sinks, the water uses up oxygen to decompress it.

Dead zones are dangerous for fish and other living organisms because they have to leave that underwater region in order to survive. Those that cannot will not live.

The Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Task Force set a goal to lower the dead zone area to a five-year average of 5,000 square kilometers (1,950 square feet). Since 1995, they have not made much progress on that goal, averaging an area of 5,960 square kilometers.

"The size of the Gulf dead zone goes up and down depending on that particular year's weather patterns," said UM aquatic ecologist Donald Scavia, director of the Graham Sustainability Institute. "But the bottom line is that we will never reach the action plan's goal of 1,950 square miles until more serious actions are taken to reduce the loss of Midwest fertilizers to the Mississippi River system, regardless of the weather."

Click here for UM's full report.

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