On the Eastern coast of North America lies a large body of water, separated from the Atlantic Ocean. Just North of the Caribbean Sea lies the Gulf of Mexico, an important location that is of immense importance to mankind.
It is surrounded to the West by the Mexican Yucatan and Veracruz regions, to the North by the United States, to the East by the Caribbean islands and Cuba, and to the South by the tapering Mexican mainland.
The Gulf of Mexico is divided into seven regions based on geographical and geological conditions:
1. The main Gulf of Mexico basin (Sigsbee Abyssal Plains and the Mississippi cone),
2. The North East Gulf of Mexico (Apalachee bay),
3. The South Florida Continental Shelf and Slope (Keys and Dry Tortugas),
4. The Campeche Bank (Yucatan straits and Arrecife Alacran),
5. The Bay of Campeche (Veracruz),
6. The Western Gulf of Mexico, and
7. The North-West Gulf of Mexico.
For its immense natural resources and historical significance, not many are aware of this Gulf and its role in trade and commerce.
In this article, we will look at 10 facts on the Gulf of Mexico you must know.
From its rich history and importance as a trade route to the role it plays in the Oil and Gas (O&G) industry, this is your go-to article on the Gulf of Mexico.
1. The Gulf of Mexico is one of the largest and oldest water bodies on Earth
Covering over 1.6 million square kilometres, the Gulf of Mexico is one of the largest and oldest water bodies on Earth. It was formed in the late Triassic period, around 300 million years ago.
Prior to this, the region was land that extended from the Yucatan continental crust. The seabed of the Gulf once formed the central region of the supercontinent Pangea that broke apart 335 million years ago.
The reason that this once dry land was converted to a water body lies in the differential cooling and stretching that occurred.
Compared to the North American mainland, the seabed of the Gulf experienced rapid cooling and loading from geological forces. This caused the base of the land to gradually sink downwards until it submerged below the local water level.
The rapid rush of wash and the ensuing sedimentation forced the crust even further down at this point, creating the Gulf of Mexico.
Its size is attributed to this gradual submergence, which was not covered with water until the Jurassic period.
The Gulf had not been explored properly until the late 1990s and 2000s when underwater explorations were undertaken to further the existing knowledge on the Gulf and its ecosystem.
2. The Gulf is a famous diving destination due to its large coral reefs
The Gulf is often portrayed as a hotspot for tourism, owing to the sprawling beaches along its coastline and the opportunity for recreational diving. The experience includes a chance to explore the coral reefs that the Gulf is famous for.
The main reef bodies include the Yucatan and Veracruz reefs in the West, the Middle Grounds and Keys reefs in Florida, and the Flower Garden Banks reef in Texas.
These reefs experience a footfall of over 10 million people annually. From guided dives and diving schools to shipwreck explorations, an estimated $200 million in revenue is generated across different nations, solely from tourism to the Gulf.
Its biodiversity also plays a major role in other facets of the region. Numerous species of fishes and birds seasonally populate the Gulf, seeking shelter in the reefs.
Moreover, rare variants of fungi and algae grow along with the corals. While most are poisonous to humans, several variants are rich sources of nutrition for marine fauna.
3. There is an extensive array of marine flora and fauna that thrives in the Gulf
Besides the biodiversity generated from the coral reefs in the region, numerous creatures inhabit the Gulf because of the Atlantic currents.
The common plants that are found in the region include seagrasses, algae, mangroves, and marsh plants. These are sites for fishes to spawn eggs as it acts as a shelter. They are also rich food sources for most creatures in the region. Lastly, they prevent erosion of the shallow Gulf seabed.
A unique feature of the Gulf is a large number of mollusks in the region, including oysters, clams, scallops, mussels, etc. The water temperatures of the Gulf suit them well, and they grow in large numbers along the coastline.
A large percentage of molluscs that are used in cooking across North and South America come from the Gulf of Mexico.
Some of the marine creatures that thrive in the area include sharks, whales, dolphins, and other fish native to the region. The Atlantic spotted, Fraser’s, Clymene, Spinner, and the Pantropical spotted are common dolphin species. Blue whales, Bryde’s whales, killer whales, humpbacks, and sperm whales are common whale species.
Blacktip sharks, bull sharks, tiger sharks, and lemon sharks are common shark species. Other fishes and creatures include the West Indian manatee, Gulf flounder, bluefish, snapper, mackerel, Albacore tuna, and grouper.
There are also turtle species such as loggerheads, green turtles, hawksbills, Kemp’s Ridleys, and leatherbacks. Several of these turtle species are endangered, and many others have been driven to extinction owing to fishing and marine pollution.
4. The Gulf has several oil and petroleum rigs dotting its waters
The Gulf is home to numerous oil rigs that produce over 17% of overall US crude oil production.
In 2012, an estimated 450+ barrels of oil were produced, and the numbers quickly climbed to over 500 million within 2 years, and projected oil production is currently at roughly 700 million barrels a year. The purview of this in the US is the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
Oil platforms have been operational in the region since the early 1930s, pioneered by Superior Oil (California) and Humble Oil. Exploration quickly progressed from a depth of 4 meters in 1937 to over 3 kilometres in recent times.
The major oil fields in the Gulf are the Eugene Island 330 Block, Atlantis Oil Fields, and the Tiber Oil Fields. The standout platforms are Baldpate (compliant tower), Bullwinkle (jacket platform), Mad Dog (Spar), Magnolia (Extended Tension Leg Platform – ETLP), and Thunder Horse (semi-submersible)
Another substrate resource present in the Gulf is Natural Gas Hydrates (NGH). Stored deep below the seabed sediments, they are an alternative source of fuel, similar to CNG, LNG, and LPG. Although no recovery has been conducted so far, the reserves can be accessed by modern technology. The main exploration was conducted in 2009 by the United States Geological Survey.
Unfortunately, there have been oil spills in the region that have caused irreparable damage to the ecosystem. The most notorious among these include the Ixtoc I Oil Spill (Campeche Bay) in 1979 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (Macondo Prospect) in 2010.
5. The Gulf was a thriving trade route prior to the discovery of the Americas by the Europeans
The Gulf was a predominant trade route of the Incans and Mayans who inhabited the Yucatan peninsula and the surrounding regions. This covers much of the Eastern coasts of present-day Mexico and the Southernmost regions of North America.
The general routes that passed through the Gulf of Mexico included Veracruz, which is a Federal Entity of Mexico and lies along nearly 1/3rd of the Eastern coastline. The Yucatan peninsula is a narrow jutting landmass that extends outward from Mexico.
Shipping was commonly carried out across present-day Florida and Southern Texas in the United States, Mexico including Veracruz and Yucatan, and some parts of South America. However, this trade quickly spread to the Caribbean islands that dotted the Eastern boundary of the Gulf.
The first known and recorded European to sail to and explore the Gulf was Amerigo Vespucci in 1497. He was also credited with first identifying the Americas (hence the derivation from his first name- Amerigo).
Thereafter, numerous expeditions were launched across the Atlantic Ocean. The majority of these were inquisitions led by the Spanish to conquer the new land that lay across the Ocean.
6. The area is filled with shipwrecks dating to several centuries
The average water depth in the Gulf ranges from 1 – 3 kilometres. The presence of reefs around the coastline was a danger to ships before the advent of advanced navigation equipment.
Several ships from the 13th – 16th century often ran aground or suffered severe damage during collisions with reefs or other vessels.
A majority of these wrecks were discovered owing to the low water depth. While some are visible from the surface or were found by amateur divers, the oil & gas industry was also partly responsible for several discoveries.
As mentioned above, O&G companies operate several platforms in the Gulf. They are required by law to conduct sonar surveys of the surrounding regions.
Besides environmental reasons, this is also to identify regions with marine archaeological potential. Several shipwrecks have been discovered in this manner.
Shipwrecks from the 13th century are mainly attributed to Spanish Inquisition vessels, well into the 16th century. Thereafter, the number of wrecks decreased due to the use of sophisticated navigational charts.
Some of the most famous shipwrecks include the “Mardi Gras” which is an unidentified ship found in 2002 at a depth of 1.2 kilometres.
To date, there is no information on what ship it was, save that it sunk in the 19th century. Another famous pair of shipwrecks is the “Robert E. Lee” steamship and the “U-166 Kriegsmarine” Nazi U-boat. Both were sunk in 1942 when the U-boat was blown apart by a depth charge after it sunk the steamship that was sailing into the Mississippi River.
7. The Gulf has a “Hot Tub or Jacuzzi of Despair” in its depths
While many water bodies across the world have very high levels of salinity, there is one particular region of extreme saline content in the Gulf of Mexico. Known as the “Hot Tub” or “Jacuzzi” of despair, this particular salt pool is also referred to as the “Killer Pool” for the danger it poses to marine creatures.
Located near the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, nearly 200 kilometres from the US coastline, this underwater salt pool was only discovered in late 2015. Its unique name comes from the extremely high salt contents, reaching nearly 4 times the surrounding levels.
Such a high concentration of salt combined with heat from thermal vents in the Earth’s crust has resulted in the formation of a toxic environment (presence of Hydrogen Sulfide and Methane). Roughly at a depth of 1 kilometre, the tub is easily identifiable, as the saline water stands out in its own pools. Due to the higher density, it sits at the bottom of the Gulf without mixing.
The pools spread across 30 meters and have a measurable depth of 12 meters. However, since it is essentially a thermal vent in the crust, geologists have proposed that these pools are several kilometres deep in reality.
Now, how did they form? Several million years ago, the shallow Gulf began rapidly evaporating leaving large salt fields.
As these salt flats merged with the sediments over time, pressure gradually built up from below. As the water gradually settled on top to form the Gulf’s present geography, rapid pressure release caused the salt to crack and dissolve into small pockets of water. This combined with the high heat from the vent to create a noxious environment.
8. The Gulf has high levels of pollution, reaching record levels in recent times
The currents within the Gulf of Mexico have a direct impact on the environmental and ecological conditions across North America. It is a relatively shallow body of water, with a depth of just 1-3 kilometres, compared to other similarly sized water bodies that extend over 5-6 kilometres below the surface.
For this reason, any pollution present on the surface is easily transported across the Gulf. In deeper bodies of water, sub-surface currents are often able to contain and restrict the spread of surface pollutants. But this is not the case in the Gulf of Mexico.
Looking at this from a technical aspect, the motion of currents in the Gulf (set up by propagating waves) has a smaller region to fully develop below the surface. Any inherent water motion quickly dies down because of the shallow seabed.
So, they tend to quickly dissipate energy without creating large sub-surface currents. On the other hand, due to their shallow nature, surface waves have large wavelengths and cover large distances.
Thus, pollutants from one region quickly spread. Besides environmental damage to the Gulf, the waste can also spread to the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean, and even Europe and Africa over hundreds of years.
To compound this problem, oil spills were common in this region during the 20th-century oil drilling and exploration spree. Despite a gap of over 3-4 decades, the pollution to the ecology from oil spills has created near irreparable damage in the Gulf.
Numerous species of organisms have now become extinct. Others have developed mutations due to prolonged exposure to the oil. Even human livelihood has been affected, as fishing is no longer possible in some parts of the coast (owing to toxic marine life).
9. The health of the Gulf impacts several surrounding countries and island nations
There has been a long-standing dispute over control of the Gulf, between the United States of America, Mexico, the Caribbean islands, Cuba, and other surrounding nations. This is partly due to the presence of large oil fields in the region.
The Gulf is also a premium shipping route that connects several countries, and also has a large number of passengers annually transiting through its ports. Lastly, fishing has been a major source of income for the states bordering the Gulf.
While military aggravation was common in the previous century, naval activities have gradually been replaced with mutual trade agreements. However, the condition of the Gulf continues to play a major role in the fortunes of the countries along its coastline.
For instance, the Southern states of the US are located close to the numerous oil platforms that dot the Gulf. In case of some safety negligence, the resulting oil spill would quickly spread to the other regions of the Gulf (as outlined in the previous section).
Setting aside the irreparable damage to North America, the currents that flow out of the South-Eastern outlet of the Gulf pose a danger to South America, Cuba, and the Caribbean island nations.
Due to the way these currents move, they spread pollutants into a wide region via the Caribbean Sea that includes the Colombian and Venezuelan coastlines, Panama, Costa Rica, distant Brazil, and numerous islands in the Southern Atlantic Ocean.
For this reason, there are several inter-governmental treaties between the US, Mexico, and the neighbouring North and South American nations. They are aimed at timely action to prevent a massive fallout in the Gulf from spreading to surrounding regions.
10. The Gulf is a hotspot for annual hurricanes along its coastline
Besides pollution, the Gulf of Mexico is notorious for another feature- frequent hurricanes. The Gulf is warmer compared to other areas of the Atlantic Ocean, as it lies in the equatorial region. This temperature gradient sets up large vortices in the air and water, which translates to the hurricanes we are familiar with.
Thankfully, over 80% of hurricanes take place deep at sea and do not affect any surrounding country barring an unexpected downpour. However, the rest that does make it to shorelines around the world can have devastating consequences.
The warm nature of the Gulf rapidly fuels hurricanes originating from the Atlantic Ocean. They proceed Westwards into the US and Mexican mainland, primarily affecting US states such as Florida and Texas. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was a massive weather phenomenon that resulted in a widespread loss of life and property.
While technology has enabled early detection and warning systems, the Gulf has another problem to contend with. Hurricanes thrive on warm water for their survival. As they pass over the Atlantic, they draw cooler water to the surface, which prevents another hurricane from following in its wake.
However, the Gulf is very shallow compared to the Ocean, and there is a lack of sufficient cool water to reduce surface temperatures. For this reason, the region experiences regular hurricanes that wreak havoc. This weather pattern is rather unique to the Gulf of Mexico.
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Ajay Menon is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, with an integrated major in Ocean Engineering and Naval Architecture. Besides writing, he balances chess and works out tunes on his keyboard during his free time.