CNH: Collaborative Research: Northern Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia and Land Use in the Watershed: Feedback and Scale Interaction

Each year an oxygen-depleted (hypoxia) zone forms in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, negatively impacting coast and marine fisheries and local economies. The spatial extent of this zone is about three times the target goal of the national Hypoxia Action Plan. The scientific assessment of causes and consequences of these hypoxic conditions indicates that both nitrogen and phosphorous loadings from the Upper Mississippi River Basin and Ohio River Basin stream systems are significant contributors to the size and duration of the zone. Land use, primarily from agriculture, is a key driver of these nutrient loadings and is the result of decisions made by more than 500,000 individual producers in those river basins. However, understanding the biogeochemical processes alone is insufficient to understanding the dynamics of this complex system. This project takes a fresh look at the natural and human dynamics of this enormous system by developing integrated and data-rich models that capture the spatial and temporal non-linearity associated with scaling up the impacts from individuals to the watershed under different scenarios. The research will produce the first complete modeling system that traces agricultural land-use decisions, made at the field scale in the Upper Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee Basins through both environmental and hydrologic components, to downstream water quality effects, including the size of the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Uniquely, the modeling effort will incorporate feedbacks via the market, and feedbacks via public policy in the form of adaptive management. This project will demonstrate how to integrate human and natural process models using the powerful tools of evolutionary algorithms.

Hypoxia is a growing environmental problem for coastal habitats elsewhere in the United States and many other countries. The development of a general modeling framework from this research will provide an effective tool for the design and implementation of policy to address both Gulf hypoxia and water quality concerns, and identify cost-effective placement of conservation practices within the landscape. This project will strengthen an interdisciplinary collaboration among scientists at five different institutions, and will support the training of graduate and undergraduate students.

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