Hypoxia Revisited

We blogged about hypoxia (this seems surreal) more than three years ago, at which time we referred to our book, Green Project Management, as “our upcoming book”.  A lot happens in three years.  The book is out, has been recognized with PMI’s highest award for literature, and has been used in University courses on sustainability.   And, that book directly covers the topic of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, and today it (hypoxia, that is, not our book) made it into the CBS Evening News:

You may want to visit our older post, here.

Or, for your convenience,

From PlanetSave.com, there is this very good and concise description:

Dead zones — whether hypoxic (very low oxygen) or anoxic (no oxygen) — are caused primarily by high-levels of nutrient pollution. This nutrient pollution — mostly the fertilizers used in industrial agriculture — causes large algal blooms which use up all of the oxygen in a given environment. As a result, the environment becomes devoid of life — a “dead zone”. These deadzones have been increasing in frequency and scale since at least the 1970s. More than 1.7 million tons of potassium and nitrogen make their way into the Gulf of Mexico every year as a result of agricultural runoff — via the Mississippi river.

If the 2013 Gulf of Mexico dead zone becomes as large as is being predicted it will cover an area the size of New Jersey. The 2013 predictions were made by modelers at the University of Michigan, Louisiana State University, and the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.

As we will be in Louisiana – New Orleans in particular – at the end of October, for the PMI North America Congress, we bring this again into focus as an example of a trigger for projects in the area of sustainability.  Anything that can reduce the flow of chemical fertilizers into the Mississippi, any ‘outcome’ that contributes to the decrease of hypoxia, is a ‘green by nature’ project, so it gets our attention.

And that’s not where it stops.  Not by a longshot.  Because hypoxia is a good example of the lessons to be learned for the other end – the ‘green in general’ part of the sustainability-in-PM spectrum.  We say this because it’s a very real example of how long-term thinking can and should be part of ANY project.  If your project produces a steady-state outcome (think: fertilizers into the Gulf) you can work this back into your risk register and an expanded definition of project success that will have you thinking – properly – like a a sustainability-oriented PM, an evolved PM.

In any case – it certainly cannot hurt to get educated about the science of hypoxia.

We look forward to meeting some of you in New Orleans!



Have you ever heard of “hypoxia”?  Perhaps you’ve heard of the more informal moniker: Dead Zones.

Should you be interested?  Perhaps only if you eat.  Have a look at this quote:

“More than 212,000 metric tons [235,000 tons] of food is lost to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico,” says marine biologist Robert Diaz of The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., who surveyed the dead zones along with marine ecologist Rutger Rosenberg of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. “That’s enough to feed 75 percent of the average brown shrimp harvest from the Louisiana gulf. If there was no hypoxia and there was that much more food, don’t you think the shrimp and crabs would be happier? They would certainly be fatter.”

Hypoxic, or “dead” zones, are becoming more prevalent, and may trigger projects to try to reduce their effect and/or prevent them from getting so severe.  The Hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, pictured above, is about the size of New Jersey.  Although the basis for hypoxia is natural and this occurs without the help of humans (or pollutants), the prevalence, severity, and size of these zones has been increasing and is traceable to – well, to you and me – because the farmers that fertilize their land along the Mississippi, for example, are doing so on our behalf.

We suggest you watch this fast-moving video before continuing: click here. Or this one.  Or, click here.

Only a few dead zones have ever recovered, such as the Black Sea, which rebounded quickly in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and a massive reduction in fertilizer runoff from fields in Russia and Ukraine. Fertilizer contains large amounts of nitrogen, and it runs off of agricultural fields in water and into rivers, and eventually into oceans.

This fertilizer runoff, instead of contributing to more corn or wheat, feeds massive algae blooms in the coastal oceans. This algae, in turn, dies and sinks to the bottom where it is consumed by microbes, which consume oxygen in the process. More algae means more oxygen-burning, and thereby less oxygen in the water, resulting in a massive flight by those fish, crustaceans and other ocean-dwellers able to relocate as well as the mass death of immobile creatures, such as clams or other bottom-dwellers. And that’s when the microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments take over, forming vast bacterial mats that produce hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas.

Diaz continues: “The primary culprit in marine environments is nitrogen and, nowadays, the biggest contributor of nitrogen to marine systems is agriculture. It’s the same scenario all over the world,” Diaz says. “Farmers are not doing it on purpose. They’d prefer to have it stick on the land.”

In addition to fertilizers, the other primary culprit is the consumption of fossil fuels. Burning gasoline and diesel results in smog-forming nitrogen oxides, which subsequently clear when rain washes the nitrogen out of the sky and, ultimately, into the ocean.

Technological improvements, such as electric or hydrogen cars, could solve that problem but the agricultural question is trickier. “Nitrogen is very slippery; it’s very difficult to keep it on land,” Diaz notes. “We need to find a technology to keep nitrogen from leaving the soil.”

Here is a “Hypoxia 101” tutorial from the EPA.

To read a detailed PDF from which we got the quotes above, click here.

For a general page about the Mississippi Basin covering many threats to that extensive region, click here.

We discuss hypoxia in our upcoming book.  We do this not to be alarmist, but to be practical.  As project managers we sense that this is an important phenomenon to be aware of, conversant about – you may be asked to manage a project to reduce nitrogen content of a fertilizer.  Who knows?