Dr. Nancy Rabalais, who has devoted her life to the study of dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, has been chosen for the prestigious MacArthur Fellows Program, which comes with a no-strings-attached $500,000 prize paid out over five years. The 62-year-old marine ecologist is executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Cocodrie.
The MacArthur Foundation’s stipends, often called a “genius grant,” are awarded to people “of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual and professional inclinations.” Twenty-three people were chosen for the 2012 awards, which the foundation says are not for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight and potential. In other words, a fitting award for Nancy Rabalais.
Rabalais’ research is dedicated to documenting and mitigating the effects of hypoxic zones — aquatic areas with low dissolved oxygen levels commonly known as “dead zones” — that have expanded dramatically in the Gulf of Mexico and many other coastal systems around the globe. Rabalais received her bachelor’s and master’s of science degrees from Texas A&I University in Kingsville and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas. Since 1983, she has been affiliated with the LUMS. Her scientific articles have appeared in such journals as Science, Nature, BioScience, and Biogeosciences.
According to the foundation’s website:
Since the mid-1980s, [Rabalais] has led a long-term monitoring program to study the size, intensity, and seasonal occurrence of dead zones in the waters off the Louisiana continental shelf; she has also analyzed the relationship between the extent of hypoxia and the increasing quantities of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the Gulf from the Mississippi River watershed.
When concentrated in coastal waters, the nutrients from farmland fertilizer and other sources spur the growth of an overabundance of algae, the decomposition of which consumes oxygen vital to sustaining an enormous spectrum of aquatic species. Over the past three decades, Rabalais’s studies have evolved to include collaborations with researchers from many different disciplines and have used methods from physical oceanography, hydrology, geochemistry, and paleoecology to make ever more precise assessments of hypoxia dynamics and their impact on a range of fragile, interconnected ecosystems.
In addition to her scientific contributions, Rabalais has played a prominent role in informing strategies to restore the degraded waters of the Gulf by reducing nutrient pollution from urban and agricultural runoff upstream and has focused national attention on the environmental and economic consequences of large-scale eutrophication. Her outreach efforts have included lecturing throughout the United States about the effects of hypoxia on those far from its waters, testifying before Congress, and working with federal, state, and tribal agencies on an action plan for improving water quality in the Mississippi River basin.
While weathering the destruction of her research facility in catastrophic hurricanes and treacherous diving conditions due to oil spills, Rabalais continues to deepen our understanding of this profound oceanographic problem that threatens the well-being of the entire Gulf region.