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Tropical Storm Barry could affect the environment of the Gulf coast and Lower Mississippi Valley in numerous ways, from accelerating runoff of farmland nutrients to toppling trees and damaging wildlife habitat and fisheries, scientists say.
But the extent of the damage — and whether it will be at least partially offset by benefits such as disruption of the notorious Gulf of Mexico "dead zone" — is hard to predict, they say. That's because the region faces a rare one-two-three punch: the storm's anticipated tidal surge and torrential downpour, combined with record-high water levels in the Mississippi River.
System - Melissa - Baustian - Ecologist - Water
"We don't know how the system is going to respond to all this because it's so unusual," said Melissa Baustian, a coastal ecologist with the Water Institute of the Gulf in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
One of the wettest-ever springs in the nation's heartland engorged the Mississippi, sending massive volumes of water southward toward the Gulf. Levees and dams were breached and millions of acres of cropland flooded in the Midwest. Barry threatens to hurl a storm surge of up to 3 feet (1 meter) onto coastal regions. And forecasters said the storm could stall inland and dump up to 2 feet (61 centimeters) of rain.
Washes - Manure - Chemical - Fertilizers - Midwestern
Rainfall washes manure and chemical fertilizers from Midwestern corn and soybean fields into streams, smaller rivers and eventually the Mississippi. The nutrients — especially nitrogen — overfeed aquatic plants that eventually die and decompose, leaving a large section of the Gulf with little or no oxygen each summer. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that this year's dead zone will be roughly the size of Massachusetts.
Large storms can shrink the zone by churning the water column and replenishing oxygen levels in deeper areas. That could be a positive, if short-lived, outcome of Barry's rampage, Baustian said.
Yet even if this year's oxygen-depleted...
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