The Blog Aquatic » Gulf Atlas News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 28 Aug 2014 17:32:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 As Coastal Populations Grow, How Will We Reduce Our Impacts? Thu, 19 Sep 2013 16:00:31 +0000 Alexis Baldera International Coastal Cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico

Photo © Cheryl Gerber / Ocean Conservancy

Some of the fastest growing populations in the United States are located in the Gulf Coast region. The population size in the Gulf states of Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas is approximately 56 million, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. population.

Growth in coastal populations is expected to put additional pressure on coastal and marine environments, including wildlife and water quality. In addition, rising sea levels, land subsidence and episodic storm events will also challenge human communities along the Gulf Coast.

Our Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem: A Coastal and Marine Atlas helps us see these interconnected issues. Check out the map below to see coastal population densities in the Gulf:

It is important that we lessen the impacts of dense human populations when we can. One of the easiest actions we can take is to reduce the amount of trash we put into the ecosystem and take out what is already there.

Marine debris is a serious pollution problem that affects the health of people, wildlife and economies. Trash in the water and on the shore can kill marine animals, injure swimmers and beachgoers, and ensnare boat propellers.

Come help us clean up the Gulf! During our International Coastal Cleanup on Sept. 21, volunteers will be cleaning up beaches all around the world, including many spots along the Gulf of Mexico. Click on the map below to find a Cleanup near you. Can’t participate in a Cleanup? Take the pledge to reduce your impact and help turn the tide on ocean trash.

Map of International Coastal Cleanup sites

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Connecticut-Sized Dead Zone Found in Gulf of Mexico Wed, 31 Jul 2013 20:00:38 +0000 Alexis Baldera LUMCON Dead zone mapImagine if all of the animals throughout the entire state of Connecticut left or died. This is what happens every year in the Gulf of Mexico. The size of the dead zone varies—sometimes it’s as big as New Jersey or only the size of Rhode Island, but the problem always persists.

Researchers from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium just spent a week measuring dissolved oxygen concentrations off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas to determine how big the dead zone is this year. And they found that it is about 5,800 square miles, or roughly the size of the state of Connecticut.

This area is called “the dead zone” because dissolved oxygen levels are too low to support life. Animals that can move out of the area, like fish and shrimp, will leave, and animals that can’t, like brittle stars and mussels, will become stressed and eventually die.

The dead zone forms every summer because nutrient-rich water from the Mississippi River basin flows into the Gulf and causes algal blooms. Nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, are helpful when used to fertilize gardens and crops, but like most other things, the best rule for nutrients is moderation. While these nutrients are naturally occurring in the Gulf and all ecosystems, levels that are too high can cause problems.

The Mississippi River basin drains 41 percent of the contiguous United States, and as water runs off fields, yards and pavement, it collects nutrients. These nutrients are carried to the Gulf where they “fertilize” coastal waters and cause algal blooms. As algae die, they sink to the seafloor where they are decomposed by bacteria, a process that uses oxygen.

During most times of the year, bottom waters and surface waters mix frequently, so oxygen levels are replenished regularly. However, during the summer there is an abundance of warm fresh water in the Gulf due to seasonal warming and freshwater river outflows. This water is less dense than the cold salty water near the bottom of the seafloor.

The densities are different enough that the two layers of water will become separated (think oil and water) and prevent mixing of the oxygen-poor bottom waters with the oxygen-rich surface waters. This is called stratification. When stratification occurs, low-oxygen waters are trapped at the bottom, and as more algae are decomposed, the oxygen levels continue to drop until they get low enough to cause a dead zone.

While the dead zone off the coast of Louisiana is the largest and most recognized example of coastal hypoxia in the Gulf, this problem is a Gulf-wide issue. We have mapped the documented cases of low-oxygen areas in our Gulf of Mexico: A Marine and Coastal Atlas. The map below shows how widespread the problem is across the Gulf.

Low Oxygen map from Gulf Atlas

What is the best way to reduce the size of the dead zone? Reduce the amount of nutrients that reach the Gulf.

The two best ways to do this are:

  1. Reduce nutrient inputs into coastal and upriver water bodies
  2. Increase the watershed’s capacity to retain excess nutrients

As consumers of agricultural goods, we can contribute to reducing nutrients by supporting farming practices that promote sustainable, responsible agriculture. For example, one practice called crop rotation can reduce fertilizer application by rotating plants like legumes that add nitrogen to the soil with plants like corn that take it up. And the practice of adding stream buffers to drainage ditches can capture nutrients before they enter waterways.

In our own yards, the best way to reduce excess nutrients is to use fertilizers carefully and slow storm water runoff by using techniques such as rain gardens.

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Spotted! It’s Whale Shark Season in the Gulf of Mexico Mon, 29 Jul 2013 17:30:28 +0000 Alexis Baldera whale shark

A whale shark swims at the West Flower Garden Bank in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Ryan Eckert / Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary

It’s prime time for spotting whale sharks in the Gulf of Mexico!

Whale shark sightings in the Gulf are recorded and tracked by the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory at the University of Southern Mississippi. According to their data set, 85 percent of sightings in the Gulf since 2002 have occurred from June to October and peaked in July.

Take a look at the map below from our Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem: A Coastal and Marine Atlas to see where sightings have occurred in the past.

whale shark map from Gulf AtlasWhale sharks have been observed in groups of more than 100 individuals near a salt dome formation called Ewing Bank off the coast of Louisiana. Although whale sharks can be found in many seas around the world, aggregations this large are rare.

If you happen to have the fortune of spotting a whale shark, you can contribute to the ongoing effort to better understand this species by reporting it to the whale shark sightings database. Little is known about whale sharks’ distribution, movement and behavior in the Gulf, so tracking these animals can increase our understanding of their role in the Gulf ecosystem.

Each whale shark’s spots are unique and photos can be used to identify and track individual animals throughout their lifetime. If you plan to be on the water in the Gulf over the next few months, keep your eyes peeled for these gentle giants. Growing to over 45 feet, they are the largest fish in the world.

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The Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem: There’s a Map for That Mon, 24 Jun 2013 12:53:35 +0000 Matt Love Blue crab map from Gulf AtlasDo you know the Gulf of Mexico? Do you really know the wildlife that lives in its waters or how we use its resources—for better or worse—to support our economy?

I thought I had a grasp on this before beginning a multi-year project that mapped important things in the Gulf. Now that the project is finished, I know there’s even more to see than I knew about! Ocean Conservancy’s new tool, “The Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem: A Coastal and Marine Atlas,” can help you get a better view of the Gulf too.

The Gulf is a complex ecosystem full of an amazing diversity of wildlife and an abundance of resources. We need to know what lives in it and where it can all be found so we can protect, conserve and restore this beautiful natural treasure.

Gulf Atlas coverThe atlas is a unique collection of 54 maps and related descriptions that illustrate and describe where you will find many invertebrates, fish, birds and marine mammals in the Gulf. Among many other species, you can learn more about sperm whales, whale sharks, blue crabs (see map above) and black skimmers.

You can look at the physical characteristics, habitats and environmental stressors in the Gulf. Sea surface currents, bottom sediments, hurricane track density and all of the known locations of coral are shown in the atlas.

You will also be able to see how people use the Gulf for recreational fishing, shrimp trawling and major oil and gas development. The areas set aside for coastal and marine protection have been included as well.

Not only is this atlas a great resource for everyone to learn about the Gulf ecosystem, but it can also serve as an important decision-making tool for resource managers who are charged with balancing the ever-increasing demands on the ocean with conserving a vibrant and resilient ecosystem.

These maps and their related descriptions are also important tools to use as we plan for the unprecedented restoration programs that are beginning to develop in the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. These restoration programs are an amazing opportunity to help improve the health of the Gulf.

It is important that the critical resources illustrated in the atlas are taken into account in order to develop the most effective and comprehensive Gulf-wide restoration projects.

Check out the atlas now!

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Are You Prepared for Hurricane Season? Wed, 29 May 2013 14:10:18 +0000 Carmen Yeung Hurricane Katrina


As most ocean lovers know, June 1 marks the official start of hurricane season. With torrential rains, storm surges and substantial winds, hurricanes can cause catastrophic damage to coastlines and several hundred miles inland, but you can increase your chances of safety by being prepared.

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30. The ingredients for a hurricane include a pre-existing weather disturbance, warm tropical oceans, moisture and relatively light winds. If the right conditions persist long enough, they can combine to produce the violent winds, incredible waves, torrential rains and floods we associate with hurricanes.

Hurricanes are an intense tropical weather system with well-defined circulation and maximum sustained winds of 74 miles per hour or higher. Major hurricanes have maximum sustained winds of 111 miles per hour or higher, which corresponds to Category 3, 4 or 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Here’s an animation that illustrates wind damage associated with increasing hurricane intensity.

In the Atlantic, hurricanes can strike the U.S. coastline from Texas to Maine. The northern Gulf Coast from Texas to northwest Florida is the prime target for pre-August major hurricanes. The threat of major hurricanes increases from west to east as the season progresses, with major hurricanes favoring the U.S. East Coast by late September. Most major October hurricanes in the United States impact southern Florida.

Hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico

The Gulf of Mexico has experienced some of the strongest storms that have impacted the coast of the United States. From 1851 to 2010, there have been 1,589 tropical cyclones in the Gulf, 644 of which were hurricanes. Among them are Hurricane Katrina (2005), Hurricane Charley (2004), Hurricane Andrew (1992), Hurricane Camille (1969), the Labor Day Hurricane (1935) and the Galveston Hurricane of September 1900.

Tropical Cyclones map

Source: The Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem: A Coastal and Marine Atlas / Ocean Conservancy

The map above displays the combined paths of tropical depressions, tropical storms and hurricanes that have occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. By understanding the patterns of tropical cyclone tracks and landfalls in the Gulf, environmental planners and risk assessors will be able to increase storm preparedness and minimize the loss of lives and property.

This map is part of a larger Ocean Conservancy project to provide tools to aid Gulf restoration efforts and improve the ongoing management of the Gulf ecosystem. Our full collection of maps, The Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem: A Coastal and Marine Atlas, will be debuting soon.

Be Prepared

As more residents move to coastal areas in the East Coast, people become more susceptible to the impacts of hurricanes: loss of life, extensive damage to coastal development and infrastructure (e.g., homes, industries and roads), and contamination of drinking water.

You can increase your own preparedness by following these tips from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA):

  • Put boards or storm shutters over windows. Do not use tape since it doesn’t prevent the window from breaking.
  • Pick up small items in your yard, such as toys, tools and potted plants, and bring in outdoor furniture. In high winds, these items could slam into you or your windows.
  • Fill six 2-liter soda bottles or a large water container for each family member. The water from faucets may not be safe to drink.
  • Store at least a three-day supply of nonperishable food.
  • Make sure you have a flashlight and radio that run on batteries in case you lose electricity.

What measures do you take in preparing for and weathering through a hurricane? Share your tips in the comments.

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