Shrinking the Gulf Coast Dead Zone

Globally, dead zones have quadrupled since 1950, according to the journal Science. And as the human population rises and increases its reliance on large-scale farming, the problem is expected to continue. This year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Gulf dead zone is 6,952 square miles, roughly the size of New Hampshire. That’s slightly smaller than their earlier prediction of 7,829 square miles, but much larger than the 5-year average of 5,770 square miles.


With his guests gathered around a white folding table last May, Tim Little cut his oven-bake cake into squares, excavating pieces from the foil wrapper, and handing them around on paper plates. An assortment of china mugs brought out from the house wait for coffee from a pot teetering on a pile of farming books. Shafts of morning sunlight peeked through small windows, illuminating the inside of the steel barn – a classic John Deere tractor, a car lift, and mechanical tools.

 Little and his friends grew up here, on family farms in Bridgewater Township, just an hour from the Mississippi River. Now in their 60s, they’ve formed a loose collective to pool resources, and share knowledge. Over the last decade they’ve been measuring increasing losses in topsoil, and a decline in soil health generally, aware of their connection to local rivers and streams, and subsequently to the rest of America.

 Now they’re pushing the boundaries of their industry to develop more efficient ways of farming locally, and towards solving a greater national problem – a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

 “We need to protect our land, our water, and our seas for future generations,” Little said. “We’re all connected through industry and ecology, and change will require a huge group effort.”

 Little’s home state of Minnesota gives birth to the Mississippi River, its cold water bubbling over football sized rocks that edge the glacial lake of Lake Itasca. Here it begins a walking-paced meander, 2,320 miles towards New Orleans, collecting water from 31 states, along with leftover agricultural chemicals that are blamed for a growing dead zone spanning the Louisiana and Texas coastlines.