The Gulf of Mexico is a major body of water bordered and nearly landlocked by North America.
The gulf's eastern, north, and northwestern shores lie within the United States of America (specifically, the states of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas); its southwestern and southern shores lie within Mexico (specifically, the states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo); on the southeast it is bordered by Cuba. It connects with the Atlantic Ocean via the Florida Straits between the U.S. and Cuba, and with the Caribbean Sea via the Yucatan Channel between Mexico and Cuba.
(Note: In common usage, at least in the U.S., the term "Gulf Coast" usually refers to either 1) the continuous portion of the coast running from Cape Sable, Florida, to Brownsville, Texas, or 2) the continuous portion of the coast running from Cape Sable, Florida, to the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Both meanings exclude Cuba as well as the Florida Keys.)
Gulf of Mexico in 3D perspective.
The total area of the Gulf of Mexico is approximately 615,000 mile² (1.6 million km²), the southern third of which lies within the tropics. The Gulf Stream, a warm Atlantic Ocean current and one of the strongest ocean currents known, originates in the gulf. The gulf has been visited many times by powerful Atlantic hurricanes, some of which have caused extensive human death and other destruction.
The Bay of Campeche in Mexico constitutes a major arm of the Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, the gulf's shoreline is fringed by numerous bays and smaller inlets. A number of rivers empty into the gulf, most notably the Mississippi River, but by one river or another all the run off from the United States between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians goes into the gulf. The land that forms the gulf's coast, including many long, narrow barrier islands, is almost uniformly low-lying and is characterized by marshes and swamps as well as stretches of sandy beach.
The continental shelf is quite wide at most points along the coast. The shelf is exploited for its oil by means of offshore drilling rigs, most of which are situated in the western gulf. Another important commercial activity is fishing; major catches include various fishes as well as shrimp and crabs, with oysters being harvested on a large scale from many of the bays and sounds. Other important industries along the coast include shipping, petrochemical processing and storage, paper manufacture, and tourism.
Coastal cities of note include Tampa, St. Petersburg, Pensacola, Mobile, New Orleans, Beaumont, and Houston (all in the U.S.), Veracruz and Mérida (in Mexico), and Havana (in Cuba).
The gulf's coastal areas were first settled by American Indian groups, including those representing various of the advanced cultures of Mexico. During the period of European exploration and colonization the entire region became a theatre of contention between the Spanish, French and English. The present-day culture of the coastal region is primarily Spanish-American (Mexico, Cuba) and Anglo-American (U.S.).
Because of the ever increasing amount of nitrogen and phosphates dissolved in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, pollution has more than doubled since 1950. Current estimates suggest that three times as much nitrogen is being carried into the Gulf today compared with levels 30 years ago or at any time in history. Blooms of photosynthesizers die and sink, and the processes of their decay exhausts the available supplies of oxygen dissolved in the water. Every summer there is now an area south of the Louisiana coastline, larger than Massachusetts at over 7,000 mile² (18,000 km²) that is hypoxic. These waters do not carry enough oxygen to sustain marine life. This annually enlarging "dead zone" is a major threat to the fishing industry and to public health.
- EPA factsheet on hypoxia (http://www.epa.gov/water/yearofcleanwater/docs/Hypoxia_Factsheet.pdf)
- Gulf of Mexico hypoxia (http://www.ncat.org/nutrients/hypoxia/hypoxia.html)