Tulane offers $1 million for solutions to Gulf dead zone

Published: Feb. 18, 2014 at 12:38 AM CST
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This graphic from the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration depicts the "dead zone,"...
This graphic from the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration depicts the "dead zone," the annual area of low oxygen off the Louisiana and Texas coasts

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Tulane University will offer $1 million to anyone, anywhere in the world, who can find a workable solution to "dead zones" in the Gulf of Mexico and other spots around the globe.

The university's challenge grew out of a lunch meeting in 2011 between Tulane President Scott Cowan and philanthropist Phyllis Taylor.

"I think three or four years from now, we'll be having another press conference celebrating," Cowan told a gathering at the Tulane University president's home on St. Charles Avenue.

"He took me up on it," Taylor said. "Well, I'm not stupid. I knew I was going to be the funder, but that was always my intent."

The contest draws on President Barack Obama's "Grand Challenge" program, aimed at tapping into the genius of entrepreneurs, researchers and inventors to solve seemingly unsolvable problems.

From that initial meeting, Taylor and the university administration and staff began looking for a project.

They settled on the Gulf dead zone, an area roughly the size of New Jersey, which forms each spring and summer off Louisiana's coast.

Fresh water from the Mississippi River, rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, ignites a huge algae bloom in the Gulf. As organisms die, they decompose, then rob the tiny creatures that live on sea floor of oxygen. Those small creatures form the base of the Gulf's rich food chain.

Although the Mississippi drains all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces, scientists say the major contributors to the problem are fertilizers that run off farms in America's break basket.

Tulane will conduct a 30-day comment period before finalizing the contest rules.

"This has to be something real, proven, that operates in the field," said Richard Aubry, Tulane's Assistant Provost for Civic Engagement and Social Entrepreneurship

This is one grand challenge that could grow over time, along with the world's ballooning population. Fertilizers have played a huge role in the dramatic increases in U.S. Farm production in recent decades and finding a workable solution to limit farm runoff has proven politically impossible.

Tulane's Prize partners include both Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.

The challenge lies partly in finding ways to significantly increase U.S. farm output while avoiding damage to another important food source, the rich Gulf of Mexico fisheries.

"The amount of food that we will need between now and 2050 is greater than the amount of food we have produced from the dawn of time until today," Strain noted.

"History tells us that we've always had naysayers, saying this cannot be solved," Taylor said. "Yet, somehow we managed to solve it."

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