Longhorn Among This Year’s 23 MacArthur Geniuses

Nancy Rabalais studies—and spreads the word about decreasing—dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

Marine ecologist Nancy Rabalais, PhD ’83, was at a meeting in Mexico recently when she got a phone call from someone with the MacArthur Foundation. The caller asked if she knew any MacArthur “genius grant” winners, and then told Rabalais she had become one herself. The award was announced this week. The payout comes to $500,000 over five years.

“That was a nice surprise,” Rabalais understates with a laugh. “I never thought I’d be considered for one. I get a lot of calls from groups asking me to think of people to nominate, so I thought maybe that’s what they were calling about. Turned out not!”

Rabalais is the executive director of Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. She got on the MacArthur Foundation’s radar for her work studying hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico—“dead zones” where the oxygen levels become too depleted to support aquatic life. Funded primarily by whatever grant money she can rustle up, Rabalais has been monitoring the size, intensity, and seasonal patterns of the Gulf’s dead zones for three decades, trying to determine their cause and how to stop them.

Perhaps surprisingly, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill didn’t contribute significantly to this particular problem. The bigger issue is nitrogen and phosphorous from agricultural fertilizers, which wind up in the Gulf via the Mississippi River, carried from Midwestern farms far upstream. Once in the Gulf, these substances feed explosions of algae, which consumes enough oxygen as it decomposes to create dead zones.

Stopping this process is as simple as decreasing the amount of chemicals that farms pump into runoff water, although summoning the will to do it might be more complicated. Better wastewater treatment and agricultural practices would help; so would the restoration of wetlands and hardwood forests along the Mississippi and decreasing carbon emissions.

“The farm bill subsidizes certain practices that are not the best for conservation,” Rabalais says. “So it’s also about political decisions, who you vote for. Individuals can also change their diets and not consume as much meat. Nitrogen is used to grow the corn that feeds the cows, hogs, and chickens. Each step up the food web takes more and more resources to get there. Personal choices can make a difference.”

Along with collecting data and pondering solutions, Rabalais has been spreading the word by testifying to everything from career-day groups of students to congressional committees. She often encounters skepticism from inland farmers when she tells them they’re contributing to oceanic dead zones a thousand miles away. It’s a problem with potentially dire questions, but Rabalais says it’s possible to turn it back.

“There are places around the world where there’s been improvement from nutrient management,” she says. “Like the Northwest shelf of the Black Sea. It receives the Danube River and has the same historical cycle as the Mississippi River and the Gulf. But then the collapse of the Soviet Union stopped the subsidization of the fertilizer industry there, and they quit making it. Nitrogen input plummeted, oxygen went back up, and the Black Sea recovered. We hope not to have to have a similar economic collapse here. But yeah, it would be a silver lining.”

Photo courtesy the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation


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