Oceanographer Nancy Rabalais Confronts the Dead Zone

August 25, 2021

President Tate and Nancy Rabalais

What is the “Dead Zone?” And why is it growing in the Gulf of Mexico? Dr. Nancy Rabalais joins President William F. Tate IV to answer these questions; give a behind-the-scenes look at an oceanographer's life both on deck and below; and describe her journey to being elected to the most prestigious scientific society in the U.S., the National Academy of Sciences. For more than three decades, Dr. Rabalais’ determination to protect marine life in the gulf has resulted in several appearances before Congress and 35 research cruises. Dr. Rabalais is a professor and the Shell Endowed Chair in Oceanography and Wetland Studies in the Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University.

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President William F. Tate IV [00:00:11] Welcome to "On Par with the President." On our podcast today, I'm excited to be talking to Dr. Nancy Rabalais, Professor of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at LSU. For more than three decades, Dr. Rabalais has studied an area of the Gulf of Mexico called the "Dead Zone," where there is so little oxygen that marine organisms, including fish, shrimp and crab cannot survive. Her determination to protect marine life in the gulf has resulted in several appearances before Congress, 35 research cruises, and most recently, election to the most prestigious scientific society in the United States of America, the National Academy of Sciences. Let me introduce you to "On Par with the President" podcast just for a moment. What does it mean to be on par in golf? Well, a golfer who's, who can play par golf is at the very top of the game. If you watch a professional golf outing, if they shoot a 72 on par that's 99 percentile, they're the very best of the best. And the vision for the podcast is bringing LSU community members who are operating at the very best at what they do. So I'm excited. We're going to tee off right now. Tell us a little bit about your research in the Gulf of Mexico. And what is the "Dead Zone?" And what's causing it? But before we get started, I want to say to you, "how you doing?"

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:01:32] I'm doing very well. Thank you. How are you doing?

President William F. Tate IV [00:01:35] I'm doing great. Thank you.

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:01:37] My research, as you said, I've been working over 30 years on this area in the Gulf of Mexico called a "Dead Zone." It's called a "Dead Zone" because if a shrimper puts a trawl over the side and drags the net and the oxygen is below the level of two, they won't catch anything, because the oxygen is too low for those organisms to live. And if they can swim and get out of the area, they will. But if you're one of their things that they eat like worms in the sediments, they can't leave and they will eventually die off. It's been a lifelong, it's not the only thing I've done, but it's been a life, seems like a lifelong research.

President William F. Tate IV [00:02:22] You're amazing. The, the thing that maybe folks won't understand is what are the levels of oxygen that we would expect to see in the Gulf of Mexico? You mentioned a level two. Help us understand that. Operationalize what do we, what should we see, and what are we seeing?

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:02:40] At this time of the year in the Gulf of Mexico, the bottom waters should probably be five or six and instead they're two, and sometimes it can go very close to zero and that's not good.

President William F. Tate IV [00:02:52] Therein lies "Dead Zone."

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:02:54] Right.

President William F. Tate IV [00:02:55] So what's causing this? Why, why is this happening? Why, why is the, why are the oxygen levels going down?

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:03:00] The Mississippi River is a major river, and it drains over 40% of the United States, and everything that goes into that river eventually gets into the Gulf of Mexico. And there are nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorous, that make algae grow, that sink to the bottom. And during their decomposition the oxygen is used up. So that's basically the process. I don't like to pick on anybody in particular, but 10% of that nitrogen and phosphorus comes from cities, some of it comes from the atmosphere, but 70% of it is from row crops, such as corn and soybeans.

President William F. Tate IV [00:03:43] So this is happening because of the way we do our agricultural activity. So it's feeding us on the land, but causing harm to our water.

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:03:52] That's correct. One of the best experiences that, well, other than going to sea, that I experienced in my time in Cocodrie, where the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium is, is when the shrimpers would meet with farmers from Wisconsin. The farmers would bring steaks, corn fed beef, and they would go out with the shrimpers on their shrimp boats and trawl for shrimp and then come have a shrimp boil while they grilled their steaks. And it's a good way to communicate about something so far away from each other that it's difficult to understand.

President William F. Tate IV [00:04:31] Well, when you're at the tee box in golf, a lot of times you just ask basic questions. People are a little nervous before they tee off. One of the questions I want to ask you is you scuba dive, I gather, and you scuba dived in the "Dead Zone." What was that like? Describe that experience for us.

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:04:46] On a clear day it can be beautiful, but that doesn't happen very often. There's usually some brownish, greenish water towards the surface that is the algae that's growing. You can go down through a clear zone, where you can see lots of fish. And then towards the bottom, you start seeing less fish, and then it gets really murky. And, it has been blackout before. You can't see.

President William F. Tate IV [00:05:13] Wow.

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:05:13] You have to do everything by feel.

President William F. Tate IV [00:05:15] So this is a case where being a scientist, you have to be brave. Am I correct? This has gotta be, this is on the cutting, this is edgy.

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:05:23] Yeah. But, I am so comfortable in the water. It's just so natural to me. Some of my divers get a little claustrophobic. But it's, it's just, it's, it's nice. I like it.

President William F. Tate IV [00:05:34] See, I don't think people really understand, to be a scientist you have to be tough. I think, I think they think of us, uh, those of us who engage in scientific activity as maybe they're a little nerdy. You're, you're, you're kind of out there on the edge. I like that. What, what got you into this? How? Talk to us. How did you start your research in the waters in the Gulf of Mexico? What, what drove you to that?

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:05:57] Well, I went to a small undergraduate college and my field trips were in Texas and they went to the Texas bays. And I grew into learning how to scuba dive and enjoyed the scuba diving. That propelled a lot of my research and my experiences. And, that's where I followed my Marine Science degree eventually. And working on not necessarily diving on everything, but having enough fun. And yes, it is hard work. We took some videos of us working underwater, and my lab manager pulled them down and put them together for an open house. And she said that she didn't realize how hard the work was while we were down there. And everybody else is up in the boat laying out in the sun, or would go, would go to the platform and get ice cream and bring it down to the boat.

President William F. Tate IV [00:06:50] Wow. Well, I, I'm thankful for what you're doing. Bring us back to that moment when you first discovered the extent of the "Dead Zone" in, in 1985. And, how'd you feel about that?

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:07:02] Nobody had actually measured the whole length of the Louisiana coast. And we worked our way from the Mississippi Delta all the way over to the Texas border and found, at that time, not as much low oxygen as we do now, but a continuous band along the Louisiana shore. And that was pretty phenomenal.

President William F. Tate IV [00:07:23] So let me ask some fun questions.

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:07:25] Okay.

President William F. Tate IV [00:07:25] Ready for some fun?

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:07:26] Right. Right.

President William F. Tate IV [00:07:27] So what does a typical day look like for you on your research cruises?

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:07:31] This last cruise we had, we have a 12 hour shift, two shifts. So we worked 24 hours a day. And my shift was to get up at 3:00 PM and work till 3:00 AM. And we go to a station. We have instruments that we put in the water to measure the oxygen. Other instruments collect water at a known depth. We bring the water in. We filter. We freeze. We do some of the analyses on board the ship, and we cruise to another station. Once you've done a couple of stations, you know what to do. And people just get up and start doing it. And then when it's our turn to go to bed, we go to bed, and somebody else gets up and does it. There's, but there's so many interesting things to see while you're out there. Especially if you're working the so-called night shift, because the lights on the ship bring fish in. They're attracted to the lights, and you get to see all kinds of interesting things, schools of squid. This last summer it was Needle Nose fish. And every now and then you get to see something larger, sharks.

President William F. Tate IV [00:08:38] So what's one of your more memorable experiences while out on the water?

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:08:42] Well, I think that one of my most memorable is when we were out in a storm, and we had 12 foot seas. And I was sleeping on the top bunk, and I got thrown out of the top bunk onto the floor, because it was so rough. So that's pretty memorable.

President William F. Tate IV [00:09:00] That's memorable. I said you had to be tough to do your job.

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:09:03] Yeah.

President William F. Tate IV [00:09:03] That's clear. So the, the next big part of golf is you tee off and you want to get to the green. And people, you know, that's the, that's the journey. By the late 1990s, you are now, uh, of interest to people in Congress. They really want you to testify and the like about the Dead Zone.

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:09:25] Right.

President William F. Tate IV [00:09:25] Tell us more about what happened. How, how did all that happen and what was it like?

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:09:29] I started working with national media and taking them out on the ship with me on research cruises to show them what we did and explain it to them. Hopefully, so they could understand it and report it correctly. Joby Warwick from the Washington Post came down, and I shared some underwater pictures with him. And one of them was a dead crab on the bottom. We called it our smoked crab, cause it was all black and decaying. That got two inches above the fold in the Washington Post on a Sunday. That piqued the interest of Senator John Breaux from Louisiana. And he said, "I want to go dive and see that smoked crab." And I said, "well, it's the wrong time of the year. It's too rough," everything else. But that was the beginning of, uh, joining the H's, the hypoxia and the harmful algal blooms with Senator Olympia Snowe.

President William F. Tate IV [00:10:24] Well, I'm going to say this to you. You're, you're not a par golfer. You're not a par researcher. You're, you're a, you're somebody who scores big. You're a double eagle type, you know? So what I want to know is, you know, when, when did, in your mind, and, you know, let us, let us inside of your mind. Cause I can tell your tough minded. You want to be great. When did you know in your mind, did you say, "I think I've made it."

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:10:52] Well, the awards that I've received over the years have started small. I was a NOAA Environmental Hero. There were larger awards that came: the Heinz award. They just started rolling in. The culmination of course is the National Academy of Science.

President William F. Tate IV [00:11:11] So how did you feel when you, when they told you, you had been elected to the National Academy of Science?

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:11:17] I was surprised. We had sort of started the process of getting me elected, but it went nowhere, absolutely nowhere. And then in April, I got a phone call from a National Academy member saying, "oh, Nancy you're an academy member now." I said, "what?" So, it was, it came, it came surprisingly. And it's certainly an honor. And I'm certainly glad to be one. I have more work to do now.

President William F. Tate IV [00:11:45] You do.

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:11:46] Yes.

President William F. Tate IV [00:11:46] What does all that success mean to you? I know, so one thing, you have more work to do, but what does it mean to you?

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:11:52] Personally, it means that I've reached one of my goals with education and research is to put the research back to good use. And I also strongly believe that research needs to go to the public, kindergarten through Congress. And I feel like my work has accomplished that. People ask me my opinion, at times, not always, but they ask my opinion. And that's just rewarding.

President William F. Tate IV [00:12:20] Well, you just described a very important part of golf. After you had the success and you get the double eagle, you get to mind the flag for other people, and that's how you give back. So just tell us a little bit more about your commitment on giving back as a result of your many successes.

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:12:41] I do a lot of public education. I go to science fairs and help judge students. I sit at tables in community activities and describe the work that I'm doing. I have talked to a lot of reporters. Many of them are my friends right now, such as Mark Schleifstein at the Times-Picayune, now the Advocate. He came into our teleconference after the cruise this summer. And he said, "I've been working on Nancy's research and stories just about as long as she's been doing them." And then he went into a very pointed question to NOAA and EPA, "why hasn't anything been done about this?"

President William F. Tate IV [00:13:25] That raises a great question for me. What, what can people like me and other people do to join you in protecting the Gulf of Mexico and the world's oceans?

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:13:33] I gave a classroom talk to a South Dakota school, and this was our topic. I asked them, first of all, I said, "do you ride a bicycle to school? Do you drive a fuel efficient car to school or do you drive a big pickup truck that uses lots of gasoline?" I said, "you can make a difference by using a fuel efficient car, or if you don't have to drive too far, use a bicycle." I said, "do your parents make you mow the lawn?" And I'll say, "well, you know, if you don't put fertilizer on that lawn, it's not going to grow so much, and you might not have to mow it as much as you do. And that saves nitrogen fertilizers from getting into the river." There are many connections, and it's, it's easy to point them out. It's maybe not as easy to follow through on them.

President William F. Tate IV [00:14:24] That's very clear directions on what we can do. Thank you.

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:14:28] Yeah.

President William F. Tate IV [00:14:28] What would you tell someone who wants to be an oceanographer?

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:14:31] Don't do it just because you love bottlenose dolphins or the fuzzy, furry things. You have to have a passion for understanding how the system works and putting all the pieces together. Because, the low oxygen in the gulf is a combination of physics, and chemistry, and biogeochemistry, and oxygen dynamics, and knowing which organisms can live and not live in the low oxygen. So you have to integrate many different things.

President William F. Tate IV [00:15:01] One last question.

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:15:03] Yeah.

President William F. Tate IV [00:15:05] Should I go diving. And do you have any tips?

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:15:07] Yes. It's, I think it's wonderful. There are places where you can take classes. I took my classes in 1969, so I've been diving for a long time. You just have to be comfortable. You need to take some good courses, and you need to have some instruction in the water. I haven't scuba dived since 2019, because I'm not as strong as I was in 1969. I took myself on a scuba diving trip to Roatan in Honduras and spent a week doing four dives a day in beautiful crystal clear water and seeing beautiful fish. And it was just fantastic. And the things that you can see underwater, if you jump in once, and aren't scared, it's going to keep you going for a long time.

President William F. Tate IV [00:16:04] That's, that's awesome. I'm going to have to give it a go. I do want to say one thing to you that's really special to me. And that is related to the LSU system and your own journey. As you know, LSU system has LSU Eunice, which is a two year school. And we have, um, comprehensive universities in our system that may be like the one you attended. And then of course, we have LSU, the entity, and where you're affiliated in that research environment. And what's so special about your story to me is it actually includes every part of LSU. I mean, you started at a two year school and we have one. And I've been down there where they're actually doing research with those students who aren't at a major research university, but they're actually engaged in discovery and they're helping them do that.

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:16:52] Right.

President William F. Tate IV [00:16:52] And I've been in Shreveport and other places, Alexandria, where they have the comprehensive colleges doing science, and then of course, here at the flagship and all across our system in medicine and the like. And for you to have started at that one, at that point of a two year schooling to be in a National Academy of Sciences, an unbelievable example for everyone in our system. So I'm just very proud to know you and thankful you're here at LSU.

Dr. Nancy Rabalais [00:17:19] Thank you. I'm very happy to have you here as well.

President William F. Tate IV [00:17:22] Thank you. Thank you for this time.