Business, Government, Science

Large ‘dead zone’ predicted for Chesapeake Bay after wet winter, spring

BALTIMORE, MD – Ecologists from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the University of Michigan are forecasting a large Chesapeake Bay “dead zone” in 2019 due to above-average river flows associated with increased rainfall in the watershed since last fall.

“The forecast this year reflects the high levels of precipitation that have been observed across the Bay’s watershed,” said report co-author Jeremy Testa of the UMCES. “The high flows observed this spring, in combination with very high flows late last fall, are expected to result in large volumes of hypoxic and anoxic water.”

The bay’s hypoxic (low oxygen) and anoxic (no oxygen) zones are caused by excess nutrient pollution, primarily from agriculture and wastewater. The excess nutrients stimulate an overgrowth of algae, which then sinks and decomposes in the water. The resulting low oxygen levels are insufficient to support most marine life and habitats in near-bottom waters, threatening the bay’s crabs, oysters, and other fisheries.

This summer’s Chesapeake Bay hypoxic or “dead zone,” an area of low oxygen that can kill fish and other aquatic life, is expected to be about 2.1 cubic miles, while the volume of water with no oxygen is predicted to be between 0.49 and 0.63 cubic miles during early and late summer.

The predicted volumes are larger than the dead zone observed during the summer of 2018 and would be among the four largest in the past 20 years. Measurements of the Chesapeake Bay’s dead zone go back to 1950, and the 30-year mean maximum dead zone volume is 1.74 cubic miles.

“The forecast is not surprising considering the near-record high flows in 2018 that have continued into 2019,” said Bruce Michael, director of the Resource Assessment Service at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “That said, bottom dissolved oxygen concentrations are improving over the long-term in Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay, indicating our efforts to reduce nutrient pollution throughout the entire watershed are improving water quality conditions, helping to support fish, shellfish and our aquatic resources.”

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources will conduct bimonthly Bay water quality monitoring cruises June through August to track Bay summer hypoxia. Results from each monitoring cruise will be available on the Department’s Eyes on the Bay website at  http://eyesonthebay.dnr.maryland.gov/eyesonthebay/index.cfm.

Throughout the year, researchers measure oxygen and nutrient levels as part of the Chesapeake Bay Monitoring Program, run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. This year’s findings will be released in the fall.

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