MEPS 240:285-290 (2002)  -  doi:10.3354/meps240285

Sediment denitrification in the Gulf of Mexico zone of hypoxia

Carl R. Childs1, Nancy N. Rabalais2, R. Eugene Turner3, Lita M. Proctor4,5,*

1Department of Oceanography, Florida State University, West Call Street, Tallahassee, Florida 32306-4320, USA
2Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, 8124 Highway 56, Chauvin, Louisiana 70344, USA
3Coastal Ecology Institute, Louisiana State University, South Stadium Road, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70803, USA
4US Geological Survey, National Research Program, Water Resources Division, MS 430, 12201 Sunrise Valley Drive, Reston, Virginia 20192, USA
5Center of Marine Biotechnology, University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, 701 East Pratt Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21202, USA
*Corresponding author. E-mail:

ABSTRACT: The largest zone of anthropogenic bottom water hypoxia in the Western Hemisphere occurs seasonally in the northern Gulf of Mexico between the Mississippi River delta and the coast of eastern Texas. This zone of hypoxia reaches its greatest extent in the summer months and is a consequence of seasonal stratification of the water column combined with the decomposition of organic matter derived from accelerated rates of primary production. This enhanced productivity is driven primarily by the input of inorganic nitrogen from the Mississippi River. There are 3 likely sinks for fixed nitrogen within this zone of hypoxia: sequestration in the sediment, dispersion and dilution into the Gulf of Mexico, and denitrification. We assessed potential denitrification rates at 7 stations in the zone of hypoxia during the summer of 1999. Those data are compared with bottom water nitrate, ammonium and dissolved oxygen (DO) concentrations. No denitrification was observed in the water column. Denitrification potential rates in the surface sediments were unexpectedly low and ranged between 39.8 and 108.1 µmol m-2 h-1. The highest rates were observed at stations with bottom water DO concentrations between 1 and 3 mg l-1. Denitrification activity was significantly lower at stations where DO was lower than 1 mg l-1 or higher than 3 mg l-1. Nutrient data for these stations demonstrate that as anoxia is approached, the dominant species of nitrogen shifts from nitrate to ammonium. The shift in nitrogen species suggests competition between microbial populations in the sediment community. The lower denitrification rates at stations with bottom water DO <1 mg l-1 may be due to nitrate limitation or an increase in the competitive advantage of microorganisms capable of dissimilatory nitrate reduction to ammonium (DNRA). Suppression of denitrification at low DO by any mechanism will increase the residence time of bioavailable nitrogen. This trend could act as a positive feedback mechanism in the formation of hypoxic bottom waters.

KEY WORDS: Sediment · Denitrification · Gulf of Mexico · Hypoxia

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