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It is generally believed that interannual variability in the areal extent of the Gulf of Mexico hypoxia is driven primarily by the magnitude of the Mississippi River freshwater and nutrient fluxes. It has recently been proposed that outwelling of carbon from deteriorating coastal wetlands into the surrounding Gulf of Mexico could be an important mechanism promoting the development of hypoxia. We used a coupled hydrology-hydrodynamics model of the Barataria estuary, a site of massive wetland loss, to calculate the fluxes of nitrogen, chlorophyll a and carbon at the estuary-ocean interface. The hydrology model calculates runoff from rainfall and evaporation data, and then feeds it into the high-resolution (100 m x 100 m grid, 1.3 million elements), two-dimensional depth-integrated hydrodynamic model. Model results show substantial outwelling of total organic carbon (TOC, 110 x 10(6) kg yr(-1)), dissolved organic carbon (DOC, 94.3 x 10(6) kg yr(-1)), particulate organic carbon (POC, 15.7 x 10(6) kg yr(-1)) and chlorophyll a (Chl a, 0.3 x 10(6) kg yr(-1)) from the estuary to the coastal waters and an import of nitrate (N-NO3, 6.9 x 10(6) kg yr(-1)) from the nutrient-rich coastal waters into the estuary. Estuarine fluxes of TOC, DOC, POC, Chl a and N-NO3, account for 2.8%, 2.7%, 3.4%, 7.5% and 1%, respectively, of the annual fluxes carried by the lower Mississippi River. The flux of total nitrogen was not statistically significant. Overall, this study supports the conclusion of the previous modeling study (Das et al 2010 Ecol. Modeling 221 978-85), suggesting that the Barataria estuary supplies a relatively small amount of the carbon consumed in the Gulf's hypoxic zone. Importantly, our results indicate that import of nitrate from the coastal waters and its assimilation within the estuary could account for 38% and 208%, respectively, of the calculated TOC and Chl a exports, demonstrating the pervasive control of the Mississippi River on the productivity of this shelf.

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Environmental Research Letters