Dead Zones: How drones could help save the Gulf of Mexico

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by Lelan Bosch, Sales Engineer
on Sep 01, 2017

It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly's wing can cause a typhoon halfway around the world. It’s an illustration of just how interconnected our Earth’s weather patterns and ecosystems are. With that being the case, perhaps the buzz of a drone’s propeller in the Midwest can have life-saving environmental and economic effects in the Gulf of Mexico.

Dead Zones

As their name implies, Dead Zones are regions in the ocean where marine life cannot survive.

Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that wash out of the soil end up in streams and tributaries that flow into larger river systems and eventually empty out into the ocean. The nutrients create large blooms of algae, which eventually die, sink, and decompose. The bacteria that help break down the dead algae also absorb the oxygen out of the water, making it impossible for marine life to survive.

That’s OK for fish that can swim in new oxygen-rich waters, but the organisms on the ocean floor – that the fish feed on – can't move, and they often die. Once they die, it takes longer for the other fish to come back, even if oxygen levels recover.

In addition to affecting marine life, Dead Zones severely impact those who make a living fishing those areas. Even those fishermen who find new waters to fish, often must travel farther from shore, costing more time and money.

Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone is the biggest ever

Every year, a Dead Zone appears in the Gulf of Mexico as excess nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural fertilizers seep into the Mississippi River system and dump into the ocean. Every year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) measures the Gulf Dead Zone. This year, they did not have good news.

This year’s Dead Zone in the Gulf is the largest ever measured. It stretches from the Mississippi delta, along the coast of Louisiana, to waters off Texas. It covers 8,776 square miles – an area the size of New Jersey. The Dead Zone is so big because of increased use of agricultural fertilizers and increased rainfall in America's Midwest, washing even greater amounts of nutrients into the Mississippi.

An illustration of the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone in July 2017 shows it stretches nearly 400 miles (643 km) across. (Photo source: NOAA)

NOAA estimates the Gulf Dead Zone costs U.S. seafood and tourism industries $82 million a year. It could be devastating to the Gulf's seafood industry, which accounts for more than 40 percent of the nation's seafood, and is still reeling from hurricanes and the oil spill.

Louisiana is second in seafood production only to Alaska. (Photo by Mike Giles on Unsplash)

How drones can help shrink Dead Zones

Federal and state agencies have recommended steps to reduce the size of the Gulf Dead Zone by encouraging Midwestern farmers to plant wide, grassy strips along streams and rivers to capture agricultural fertilizer runoff before it enters the watershed. Some scientists, however, think these steps will be inadequate, and reducing the Dead Zone will actually require reducing nutrient pollution from farms.

This is where agricultural drones used for precision farming can help. Drones take aerial pictures over farms and photo stitch high-definition field maps. Special cameras like near-infrared (NIR) sensors can generate Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) maps that better illustrate variations in crop health and pinpoint areas of stressed crop.

Agronomists can upload NDVI maps into agronomy software like Ag Leader SMS™ and agX® SST to generate variable-rate prescription maps. Farmers can then use variable-rate precision farming techniques to apply agricultural fertilizers like nitrogen and phosphorus only where needed. It greatly reduces the amount of excess nutrients leaching into lakes and rivers, and also saves farmers money, by reducing the time and inputs that go into their crop.

An agronomist used a drone and Botlink to capture NDVI imagery of a field and write a variable prescription for 25 lbs of urea in the yellow zones and 75 lbs of urea in the red zones. The actual coverage area was minimized to 30 acres instead of 73.5 acres. A month and a half later, the poor performing areas expect to produce the same yields.

Dead zones are having serious environmental and economic impacts, and drones are a serious solution with far-reaching benefits. Agricultural drones used with precision farming techniques can greatly reduce excess fertilizers and chemicals in groundwater, improve farm yields, and even help wildlife and people trying to make a living off our shores.

If you’d like to learn more about Botlink agricultural drone mapping software and how it can help your farm operation, visit or talk to one of our specialists today.


Lelan Bosch

Sales Engineer

Lelan creates articles, brochures and content to help educate clients and prospects and guide their application of the Botlink system.

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