Coastal Command

From a tiny marine research center on the Louisiana coast, Nancy Rabalais has led the charge to map, understand, and reduce dangerous “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico.

By | September 1, 2013

Executive Director and Professor
Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium
Chauvin, Louisiana
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped parts of the roof off the research building of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), situated 85 miles southwest of New Orleans in the heart of Mississippi River Delta wetlands. One month later, Hurricane Rita poured water into the facility, causing major flood damage. In 2008, Hurricane Gustav’s 157-mile-per-hour winds again damaged the roof. A month later, Hurricane Ike flooded the complex with the highest water levels the facility had ever seen.

“We’re constantly under repair,” says Nancy Rabalais, director of LUMCON. And just like her research center, Rabalais has weathered many storms, atmospheric and scientific, during her career. Once a graduate student ready to leave research, now a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Rabalais has zigged and zagged her way across land and ocean to become the face of coastal ecosystem research and outreach in the Gulf of Mexico. Her work over the last 3 decades has brought national attention to the dramatic expansion of marine hypoxic zones—areas of ocean with low dissolved oxygen concentrations that can no longer support aquatic life—and has shaped Rabalais into an outspoken advocate for mitigating this damage.

Here, Rabalais recalls chasing fiddler crabs around South Texas, her first research cruise on a rickety boat, and how everything changed after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Rabalais Gets Real

Serendipitous skills. “My father was an engineer and my mom was a stay-at-home mom in the 1950s. It was like Leave It to Beaver. We moved around Texas a lot until I was 13 and ended up in Corpus Christi. While some people have their careers planned out—they know where they’re going to get their PhD, when they’ll get married and have children, when they’ll get a beagle—mine just happened along the way. I went to Del Mar College, a 2-year college in Corpus Christi, because I was paying my own way through school, working almost 40 hours a week as an office manager and secretary. That’s the only way I could do it. Interestingly, my mother insisted I take typing and shorthand in high school because she said I would need to be able to get a job someday. And those two skills came in very handy, especially the shorthand, because it got me a well-paying summer job that kept me in school. But I headed in the direction of biology rather than business.”

“My PhD research was essentially chasing fiddler crabs around Texas. It did not prepare me for congressional briefings.”

Reef madness. “From Del Mar, I went to Texas A&I in Kingsville, a 4-year school where my sister had gone. I was still working a lot in Corpus Christi, so I took a bus there and back every day. At A&I I had some excellent biology teachers, and because of its location [near the coast] and those teachers, I went on a lot of field trips where I was out in the marine environment. And out of high school, I had started dating someone who scuba dived, so I started going to the beach a lot and learning to scuba dive. I think that’s where my interest in biology transformed into marine biology.”

Return to sender. After completing her bachelor’s degree, Rabalais did a master’s in biology at Texas A&I (now called Texas A&M—Kingsville), where her thesis involved studying tunicates, or sea squirts, on a reef off the Texas coast. “That was my first venture into research. I never published it. I did try to get part of it published, but it was sent back. Rejection wasn’t a very fulfilling experience.” So instead of moving on to more graduate work, Rabalais took a job working as a seashore tour guide, giving nature talks on Padre Island.

Counting corals. But soon Rabalais got a nudge back toward research. The University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas needed technicians to identify invertebrates in marine samples as part of an offshore oil and gas production assessment. “All of my good training at Texas A&I qualified me. I did that for 3 years, and I started seeing how the community analyses were put together, and I started getting involved in data analysis and wrote some taxonomic papers. My first paper was a species description in 1979. But after 3 years of that, I decided I would like to direct my own research, instead of following others. So that evolved into me wanting to go back to get my PhD.”

Catching crabs. In 1983, Rabalais completed her PhD at the University of Texas (UT) in Port Aransas, studying physiological and behavioral adaptations of a species of crab endemic to the arid environment of south Texas. “My PhD research was essentially chasing fiddler crabs around Texas. It did not prepare me for congressional briefings, but it did give me a basis for how to design and conduct experiments. I still didn’t have a life plan, but I hoped my PhD would lead to some sort of research career.”

Trailer sweet trailer. And it did. Rabalais applied for several postdoctoral positions, and was accepted to both the Smithsonian Marine Station in Florida and the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. At the time, LUMCON consisted of five trailers, two staff scientists, and a hole in the ground where the organization’s new Marine Center was going to be built. Still, Rabalais chose LUMCON, which was offering positions to both to her and her then-husband. Once she was there, Don Boesch, the director of LUMCON at the time, handed Rabalais the lead on numerous projects, quickly giving her more and more leadership roles, including studies of stone crabs in the Gulf and blue crab recruitment. In 1985, he handed her the project that would become the lifelong focus of her research.

Short on air. “Boesch was from the Chesapeake Bay area and knew all about hypoxia in the Bay and the influence of rivers and nutrients on the formation of that. There had been sketchy early information about low oxygen on the Louisiana shelf, where people didn’t catch shrimp, but it was not well studied. Boesch was able to convince then-Senator [John] Breaux to get NOAA to spend some money on studying hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. We got the first year of money in 1985, and Boesch said, ‘This is for you to run.’”

How low can you go? Two senior researchers joined Rabalais, and the trio mapped out two offshore areas to begin tracking oxygen levels in the Gulf. “We started taking monthly samples in a small boat that was about ready to sink every time I got on it. We also did a mapping cruise in the summer of 1985 to determine the area and conditions of low oxygen on the continental shelf.” On that cruise, the three researchers identified a large and continuous area of low oxygen. The next year, they found two distinctive areas of hypoxia right in the path of waterways flowing from the Mississippi River into the Gulf, suggesting the cause of low oxygen was nutrients from farmland fertilizer runoff into the river. Such nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorus, cause the overgrowth of algae, which then die and sink to the ocean floor, where bacteria decompose the algae, a process which uses all the oxygen in the vicinity. And without available oxygen, other marine life flees or dies. Rabalais began tracking the hypoxic zones, making monthly cruises to measure their size and to collect sediment samples. “The more we studied it, the more we were finding out [that lack of oxygen] was related to the river and the nutrients.” The team’s early findings made the cover of BioScience in 1991 and the cover of Nature in 1994. “We solidly linked the increase in production of nutrients with severe hypoxia events,” she says.

Double trouble. In 1993, Rabalais discovered that the size of the hypoxic zone in the Gulf had doubled since she first began studying it in 1985. “I decided people needed to know about this, so I started putting a press release out every summer after our cruise.” Those releases began to draw attention from state and national media outlets. “Soon we became the poster child for hypoxia,” says Rabalais. In 1996, she published a review paper in Estuaries demonstrating the major effects of Mississippi River water pollution in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The paper became the journal’s second-most-cited work between 1992 and 2005. “We were really nailing this thing down. [Large agricultural farms and interest groups] didn’t really like the message, but that’s what we were finding.”

Rabalais Raises the Roof

Speaking up. In 1999, Rabalais was invited to participate in the Ecological Society of America and the Packard Foundation’s inaugural Leopold Leadership Program, an effort to teach scientists the skills they need to communicate with the public about their research findings. “I learned a lot from the program, and I’ve since tried to make my science and data as available as possible. I give tons of talks—from conferences to middle schools—and I take lots of reporters out with us.” Rabalais has also testified to Congress about hypoxia and water quality on numerous occasions, and in July gave a briefing to NOAA on a National Research Council report about the effects of the BP oil spill on the coastal ecosystem.

Getting involved. “One thing the Leopold Leadership Program taught me was to get involved in leadership roles in science societies.” Rabalais was the first female chair of the Ocean Studies Board of the National Research Council and president of the Estuarine Research Federation (now the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation), among other positions. In such roles, “you get a broader appreciation of all the things going on in your scientific community, and you start to build collaborations and write research proposals with others,” says Rabalais.

Spilling over. Following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf, LUMCON went from a quiet scientist’s haven to a national hub of activity. “The governor used our front lawn as the landing pad for his helicopter when he came to look at the oil. BP set up a command center within a mile of us at the end of the road. There was a lot of pressure for LUMCON to become housing for BP workers, which we just couldn’t do. I couldn’t become a BP arm; I wanted to continue to serve Louisiana scientists. Then there was a request to use our front yard to cordon off BP protestors that might show up. I said, ‘No.’ The whole character of the community changed. We went from 100 people to 3,000 coming down every day to work.” In 2010, BP announced a funding initiative for research consortia to focus on effects of the spill. Rabalais and her collaborators applied for and won an award of $12 million over 3 years to start the Coastal Waters Consortium, funding research and outreach programs on coastal ecosystems, especially marsh food webs. “We’re still seeing effects on food webs, especially on insects in the marsh, effects on the seaside sparrow, holdover of contamination in areas of the marsh, and more.”

“I couldn’t become a BP arm; I wanted to continue to serve Louisiana scientists.”

Raising the dead. Rabalais does believe there are ways to mitigate or even reduce the dead zones in the Gulf, but there is “no social or political will behind it,” she says. “If you work hard to reduce nutrient load, you can have an effect. Lots of things can be done with fertilizer timing and runoff, and a lot of small farms are approaching this in a positive way, but they’re only a small part of the big agricultural business. It’s difficult to make the large-scale changes that will lead to more sustainable agriculture.”


Stage fright. When it comes to public speaking, “I usually do fine,” says Rabalais. “I have become a much better public speaker than when I started out. In a high school English class, I was so scared when I stood up to give my book report that I fainted. And when I had to defend my master’s thesis, I was also going to faint. I had to sit down with my head between my knees. So I’ve come a long way.”

Secret caller. In 2012, while at a research meeting in Mexico, Rabalais got a call on her cell phone from an unidentified Illinois phone number. The caller asked if she knew the MacArthur Foundation, an organization that awards annual fellowships to individuals with extraordinary creativity and dedication. She said she did. “He was going on and on about how great these fellows were, and I thought he was calling to ask me to nominate somebody. Then he asked if I could name a MacArthur fellow. I said no, but if he told me a name I might know him or her. He finally asked if I knew a fellow born on January 23, which is my birthday. I said, ‘What?!?’ It was a shock, and then I had to keep it a secret until it was announced.”

Saving the planet. Rabalais herself takes many measures to reduce her part in the nutrient overload of ecosystems. “I try to live a life of a lower carbon footprint. We don’t fertilize our yard, and I recycle just about everything I can. I drive a fuel-efficient vehicle with 166,000 miles on it. I don’t eat much meat, not for humanitarian reasons, but because a lot of the feed for those animals uses fertilizers that run into the Mississippi River.”

Greatest Hits

  • Tracked and investigated the spread and causes of aquatic hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • In 1994, demonstrated that agricultural water pollution in the Mississippi River has significant impacts in the northern Gulf of Mexico.  
  • Through outreach efforts, including congressional testimony, focused national attention on water quality and ecosystem concerns in the Gulf.
  • Directs the Coastal Waters Consortium to study the effects of the BP oil spill on coastal ecosystems.

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