An official website of the United States government.

This is not the current EPA website. To navigate to the current EPA website, please go to This website is historical material reflecting the EPA website as it existed on January 19, 2021. This website is no longer updated and links to external websites and some internal pages may not work. More information »

Community Multiscale Air Quality Modeling System (CMAQ)

Understanding Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Using CMAQ

Elevated reactive nitrogen (N) loading from the air and land to receiving waters can result in large algae “blooms.” When these blooms eventually mature, die and sink to the ocean floor, the decay process can result in transient areas of depleted oxygen in bottom waters, i.e., hypoxiaHelphypoxiaLow oxygen content or tension; deficiency of oxygen in the inspired air.  Hypoxia can lead to the exodus of mobile marine species from the area. Less mobile species experience stress or death under hypoxic conditions. The U.S. Northern Gulf of Mexico (NGM) experiences recurring/annual hypoxic events that can last several months and, from 2011-2015 averaged more than 13,000 km2 in extent (Rabotyagov et al., 2014; Turner et al., 2012). 

The Mississippi River Basin (MRB) is the dominant source of freshwater to the NGM, and agricultural sources of nutrients within the MRB have also been identified as key contributors to excess nutrient loading to the NGM (Robertson et al., 2013). Meeting future demand for food, feed and bioenergy through expansion of MRB agricultural production could increase already excessive N and phosphorous (P) loads to the NGM if practicable means of capturing or reducing edge-of-field nutrient losses cannot be found (Donner and Kucharik, 2008; Costello, et al., 2009; Alshawaf et al., 2016). 

Identifying land management strategies which reduce the extent and intensity of annual hypoxic events in the NGM, while sustaining the long-term economic, societal and ecological health of land, air and water environments in the MRB, represents a critical regional-scale research challenge. Comparisons of a baseline environmental status representing present conditions to two future scenarios (2022) that reflect continued emission reductions prescribed under the Clean Air Act (CAA), and increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations with and without expanded bioenergy feedstock production, assumed here to be grain corn are used to identify and explore these strategies. 

Stakeholder interests are represented by energy and agricultural market price-driven land use change and changing environmental exposures (e.g., nitrate in groundwater). Air quality status is simulated with bi-directional CMAQ, land quality status and the production of food and animal and bio-energy feedstocks are simulated using the coupled EPIC/CMAQ modeling system, i.e. the Fertilizer Emission Scenario Tool for CMAQ (FEST-C) system, and changes to nutrient loads transported to the NGM are simulated using a large watershed model (McCracken, et al., 2017). The synthesis of stakeholder (market) and multi-media environmental results, provides a more holistic picture of known and unanticipated challenges as well as solutions to hypoxia in our Southern Coastal waters.

Related Links

What is hypoxia? Exit


Alshawaf, M., Douglas, E., & Ricciardi, K. (2016). Estimating nitrogen load resulting from biofuel mandates.  Environmental Research and Public Health, 13,  478.  doi: 10.3390/ijerph13050478EXIT

Cooter, E.J., Dodder, R., Bash, J., Ran, L., Benson, V., Yang, D., & Dennis, R. (submitted). Loose coupling of economic and physical process models supporting integrated multimedia research in the United States Mississippi River Basin.

Costello, C., Griffin, W.M., Landis, A.E., & Matthews, H.S. (2009). Impact of biofuel crop production on the formation of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. Environ. Sci. Technol, 43,  7985-7991.

Donner, S.D. & Kucharik, C.J. (2008). Corn-based ethanol production compromises goal of reducing nitrogen export by the Mississippi River.  Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 105, 4513-4518.  doi: 10.1073/pnas.0708300105EXIT

Garcia, V., Cooter, E.J., Hinckley, B., Murphy, M., Xing, X., Crooks, J. (2017). Examining the impacts of increased corn production on ground water quality using a coupled modelling system. Science of the Total Environment, 586, 16-24. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.02.009.Exit

McCrackin, M., Cooter, E.J., Dennis, R., Harrison, J., & Compton J. (2017). Alternative futures of dissolved inorganic nitrogen export from the Mississippi River Basin: influence of crop management, atmospheric deposition, and population growth. Biogeochemistry. doi: 10.1007/s10533-017-0331-zExit

Rabotyagov, S.S., Kling, C.L., Gassman, P.W., Rabalais, N.N., & Turner, R.E. (2014). The Economics of dead zones: causes, impacts, policy challenges and a model of the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxic Zone.  Review of Environmental Economics and Policy  8,  58-79. doi: 10.1093/reep/ret024EXIT

Robertson, E.M. & Saad, D.A. (2013).  SPARROW Models used to understand nutrient sources in the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin.  J. Environ. Qual., 42, 1422-1440.  doi: 10.2134/jeq2013.02.0066Exit

Turner, R.E., Rabalais, N.N., &  Justice, D. (2012). Predicting summer hypoxia in the northern Gulf of Mexico:  Redux.  Marine Pollution Bulletin, 64: 319-324.  doi: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2011.11.008Exit