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Ocean pollution. Sea "dead zones", oxygen-deprived, fishless: 1st recorded in 1970, 417 in 2008, largest covers 70,000 sq km


By WcP.Watchful.Eye - Posted on 22 March 2010

ocean deadzones concentrated mainly around coasts of industrialized countries, causing widespread killing of fish & other marine organisms
A new global study of Earth’s oceans shows a rapid rise in the number of “dead zones” - areas of seafloor with too little oxygen to sustain most marine life. The oxygen-starved waters have proliferated since the 1960s and now rank as one of the world's most pressing environmental problems.
largest ocean deadzone in Gulf of Mexico from Mississippi River delta
Clocking in at over 8000 square miles (21,000 km2) this year, probably the largest dead zone today stems from the Mississippi River delta in the Gulf of Mexico. This is a site at the confluence of significant farming in the midwest and significant fishing (and shrimping) in the Gulf area. The dead zone spans east to west along the Louisiana and Texas coasts.
Expanding dead zones in the oceans: Mississippi Delta, Yangtze River, and Pearl River
Several visible sites with expanding dead zones. Mississippi Delta at the top, with Yangtze River in the bottom left and Pearl River in the bottom right. The dead zones are the tinted clouds swirling at the coastal edge.
Map of ever-rising, now 400+ dead zones in world’s oceans. Their murky waters generate blackholes - no fish, no birds
Over 400 dead zones dot the globe (see black dots above). There seems to be a bit of a graveyard forming in the Eastern US and Northern Europe... Dead zones have been tracked sine the 1970s, but have increasingly expanded their locations, their reach, and are lingering after summer. The root of the problem is the spread of nitrogen caused by runoff of fertilizers, sewage outflows, and nitrogen deposits from burning fossil fuels.

(quote)

Dead zones are hypoxic (low-oxygen) areas in the world's oceans where marine life could not be supported due to depleted oxygen levels. Since first recorded in 1970 ocean dead zones have been on a dramatic increase. In 2008 the reported figure was 417 worldwide. The largest dead zone covered 70,000 square kilometres (27,000 mi²). The increased amount of nitrous oxide (N2O) produced in low-oxygen (hypoxic) waters can elevate concentrations in the atmosphere, further exacerbating the impacts of global warming and contributing to ozone “holes” that cause an increase in our exposure to harmful UV radiation. Dead zones are reversible. Use of chemical fertilizers is considered the major human-related cause of dead zones around the world. The Black Sea dead zone, previously the largest dead zone in the world, largely disappeared between 1991 and 2001 after fertilizers became too costly to use, causing a drop in fertilizer usage. The U.N. has advocated other cleanups by reducing large industrial emissions. From 1985 to 2000, the North Sea dead zone had nitrogen reduced by 37% when policy efforts by countries on the Rhine River reduced sewage and industrial emissions of nitrogen into the water.

Dead zones are hypoxic (low-oxygen) areas in the world's oceans, the observed incidences of which have been increasing since oceanographers began noting them in the 1970s. These occur near inhabited coastlines, where aquatic life is most concentrated. (The vast middle portions of the oceans which naturally have little life are not considered "dead zones".) The term can also be applied to the identical phenomenon in large lakes.

In March 2004, when the recently-established UN Environment Programme published its first Global Environment Outlook Year Book (GEO Year Book 2003) it reported 146 dead zones in the world's oceans where marine life could not be supported due to depleted oxygen levels. Some of these were as small as a square kilometre (0.4 mi²), but the largest dead zone covered 70,000 square kilometres (27,000 mi²). A 2008 study counted 405 dead zones worldwide.

Oceanic Dead Zones Continue to Spread. Fertilizer runoff and fossil-fuel use lead to massive areas in the ocean with scant or no oxygen, killing large swaths of sea life and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage

More bad news for the world's oceans: Dead zones—areas of bottom waters too oxygen depleted to support most ocean life—are spreading, dotting nearly the entire east and south coasts of the U.S. as well as several west coast river outlets.

According to a new study in Science, the rest of the world fares no better—there are now 405 identified dead zones worldwide, up from 49 in the 1960s—and the world's largest dead zone remains the Baltic Sea, whose bottom waters now lack oxygen year-round.

This is no small economic matter. A single low-oxygen event (known scientifically as hypoxia) off the coasts of New York State and New Jersey in 1976 covering a mere 385 square miles (1,000 square kilometers) of seabed ended up costing commercial and recreational fisheries in the region more than $500 million. As it stands, roughly 83,000 tons (75,000 metric tons) of fish and other ocean life are lost to the Chesapeake Bay dead zone each year—enough to feed half the commercial crab catch for a year.

"More than 212,000 metric tons [235,000 tons] of food is lost to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico," says marine biologist Robert Diaz of The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., who surveyed the dead zones along with marine ecologist Rutger Rosenberg of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. "That's enough to feed 75 percent of the average brown shrimp harvest from the Louisiana gulf. If there was no hypoxia and there was that much more food, don't you think the shrimp and crabs would be happier? They would certainly be fatter."

Only a few dead zones have ever recovered, such as the Black Sea, which rebounded quickly in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and a massive reduction in fertilizer runoff from fields in Russia and Ukraine. Fertilizer contains large amounts of nitrogen, and it runs off of agricultural fields in water and into rivers, and eventually into oceans.

This fertilizer runoff, instead of contributing to more corn or wheat, feeds massive algae blooms in the coastal oceans. This algae, in turn, dies and sinks to the bottom where it is consumed by microbes, which consume oxygen in the process. More algae means more oxygen-burning, and thereby less oxygen in the water, resulting in a massive flight by those fish, crustaceans and other ocean-dwellers able to relocate as well as the mass death of immobile creatures, such as clams or other bottom-dwellers. And that's when the microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments take over, forming vast bacterial mats that produce hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas.

"The primary culprit in marine environments is nitrogen and, nowadays, the biggest contributor of nitrogen to marine systems is agriculture. It's the same scenario all over the world," Diaz says. "Farmers are not doing it on purpose. They'd prefer to have it stick on the land."

In addition to fertilizers, the other primary culprit is the consumption of fossil fuels. Burning gasoline and diesel results in smog-forming nitrogen oxides, which subsequently clear when rain washes the nitrogen out of the sky and, ultimately, into the ocean.

Technological improvements, such as electric or hydrogen cars, could solve that problem but the agricultural question is trickier. "Nitrogen is very slippery; it's very difficult to keep it on land," Diaz notes. "We need to find a technology to keep nitrogen from leaving the soil."

The increased frequency and intensity of oxygen-deprived “dead zones” along the world’s coasts can negatively impact environmental conditions in far more than just local waters. In the March 12 edition of the journal Science, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science oceanographer Dr. Lou Codispoti explains that the increased amount of nitrous oxide (N2O) produced in low-oxygen (hypoxic) waters can elevate concentrations in the atmosphere, further exacerbating the impacts of global warming and contributing to ozone “holes” that cause an increase in our exposure to harmful UV radiation.

As covered in the book ZERO Greenhouse Emissions ‘Since first recorded in 1970 ocean dead zones have been on a dramatic increase, doubling in each decade from recorded areas in the 90’s to 150 in 2003, some stretching 70,000 square kilometers. The United Nations reports over the following two years 2003–2005 estimates were of 200. In 2008 the reported figure was 417 worldwide.’

From Science Daily -The increased frequency and intensity of oxygen-deprived “dead zones” along the world’s coasts can negatively impact environmental conditions in far more than just local waters. In the March 12 edition of the journalScience, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science oceanographer Dr. Lou Codispoti explains that the increased amount of nitrous oxide (N2O) produced in low-oxygen (hypoxic) waters can elevate concentrations in the atmosphere, further exacerbating the impacts of global warming and contributing to ozone “holes” that cause an increase in our exposure to harmful UV radiation.

“As the volume of hypoxic waters move towards the sea surface and expands along our coasts, their ability to produce the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide increases,” explains Dr. Codispoti of the UMCES Horn Point Laboratory. “With low-oxygen waters currently producing about half of the ocean’s net nitrous oxide, we could see an additional significant atmospheric increase if these ‘dead zones’ continue to expand.”

Although present in minute concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere, nitrous oxide is a highly potent greenhouse gas and is becoming a key factor in stratospheric ozone destruction. For the past 400,000 years, changes in atmospheric N2O appear to have roughly paralleled changes in carbon dioxide CO2 and have had modest impacts on climate, but this may change. Just as human activities may be causing an unprecedented rise in the terrestrial N2O sources, marine N2O production may also rise substantially as a result of nutrient pollution, warming waters and ocean acidification. Because the marine environment is a net producer of N2O, much of this production will be lost to the atmosphere, thus further intensifying its climatic impact.

Increased N2O production occurs as dissolved oxygen levels decline. Under well-oxygenated conditions, microbes produce N2O at low rates. But at oxygen concentrations decrease to hypoxic levels, these waters can increase their production of N2O.

N2O production rates are particularly high in shallow suboxic and hypoxic waters because respiration and biological turnover rates are higher near the sunlit waters where phytoplankton produce the fuel for respiration.

When suboxic waters (oxygen essentially absent) occur at depths of less than 300 feet, the combination of high respiration rates, and the peculiarities of a process called denitrification can cause N2O production rates to be 10,000 times higher than the average for the open ocean. The future of marine N2O production depends critically on what will happen to the roughly ten percent of the ocean volume that is hypoxic and suboxic.

“Nitrous oxide data from many coastal zones that contain low oxygen waters are sparse, including Chesapeake Bay,” said Dr. Codispoti. “We should intensify our observations of the relationship between low oxygen concentrations and nitrous oxide in coastal waters.”

Dead zones are hypoxic (low-oxygen) areas in the world's oceans, the observed incidences of which have been increasing since oceanographers began noting them in the 1970s. These occur near inhabited coastlines, where aquatic life is most concentrated. (The vast middle portions of the oceans which naturally have little life are not considered "dead zones".) The term can also be applied to the identical phenomenon in large lakes.

In March 2004, when the recently-established UN Environment Programme published its first Global Environment Outlook Year Book (GEO Year Book 2003) it reported 146 dead zones in the world's oceans where marine life could not be supported due to depleted oxygen levels. Some of these were as small as a square kilometre (0.4 mi²), but the largest dead zone covered 70,000 square kilometres (27,000 mi²). A 2008 study counted 405 dead zones worldwide.

[Over 400 dead zones dot the globe (see black dots above). There seems to be a bit of a graveyard forming in the Eastern US and Northern Europe...] Dead zones have been tracked sine the 1970s, but have increasingly expanded their locations, their reach, and are lingering after summer.

An interesting article in Science chronicles the ever rising numbers of dead zones. Dead zones are oxygenless waters as a result of activities such as riverine runoff of fertilizers and other algae-multiplying nutrients. As written by Diaz and Rosenberg, “Dead zones have now been reported from more than 400 systems, affecting a total area of more than 245,000 square kilometers (95,000 miles2), and are probably a key stressor on marine ecosystems.” Their murky waters generate blackholes in the ocean – no fish, therefore no birds, no recreational or commercial fishing. And shift infrastructures – boat routes, port activity, a Dead zones have been tracked sine the 1970s, but have increasingly expanded their locations, their reach, and are lingering after summer.

Causes of dead zones

Aquatic and marine dead zones can be caused by an increase in chemical nutrients (particularly nitrogen and phosphorus) in the water, known as eutrophication. These chemicals are the fundamental building blocks of single-celled, plant-like organisms that live in the water column, and whose growth is limited in part by the availability of these materials. Eutrophication can lead to rapid increases in the density of certain types of these phytoplankton, a phenomenon known as an algal bloom. Although these algae produce oxygen in the daytime via photosynthesis, during the night hours they continue to undergo cellular respiration and can therefore deplete the water column of available oxygen. In addition, when algal blooms die off, oxygen is used up further during bacterial decomposition of the dead algal cells. Both of these processes can result in a significant depletion of dissolved oxygen in the water, creating hypoxic conditions. Dead zones can be caused by natural and by anthropogenic factors. Use of chemical fertilizers is considered the major human-related cause of dead zones around the world. Natural causes include coastal upwelling and changes in wind and water circulation patterns. Runoff from sewage, urban land use, and fertilizers can also contribute to eutrophication.

Notable dead zones in the United States include the northern Gulf of Mexico region, surrounding the outfall of the Mississippi River, and the coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest, both of which have been shown to be recurring events over the last several years.

Additionally, natural oceanographic phenomena can cause deoxygenation of parts of the water column. For example, enclosed bodies of water such as fjords or the Black Sea have shallow sills at their entrances causing water to be stagnant there for a long time. The eastern tropical Pacific Ocean and Northern Indian Ocean have lowered oxygen concentrations which are thought to be in regions where there is minimal circulation to replace the oxygen that is consumed (e.g. Pickard & Emery 1982, p 47). These areas are also known as Oxygen Minimum Zones (OMZ). In many cases OMZ's are permanent or semi-permanent areas.

Remains of organisms found within sediment layers near the mouth of the Mississippi River indicate four hypoxic events before the advent of artificial fertilizer. In these sediment layers, anoxia-tolerant species are the most prevalent remains found. The periods indicated by the sediment record correspond to historic records of high river flow recorded by instruments at Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Effects of dead zones

Low oxygen levels recorded along the Gulf Coast of North America have led to reproductive problems in fish involving decreased size of reproductive organs, low egg counts and lack of spawning.

In a study of the Gulf killifish by the Southeastern Louisiana University done in three bays along the Gulf Coast, fish living in bays where the oxygen levels in the water dropped to 1 to 2 parts per million (ppm) for 3 or more hours per day were found to have smaller reproductive organs. The male gonads were 34% to 50% as large as males of similar size in bays where the oxygen levels were normal (6 to 8 ppm). Females were found to have ovaries that were half as large as those in normal oxygen levels. The number of eggs in females living in hypoxic waters were only one-seventh the number of eggs in fish living in normal oxygen levels. (Landry, et al., 2004)

Fish raised in laboratory-created hypoxic conditions showed extremely low sex-hormone concentrations and increased elevation of activity in two genes triggered by the hypoxia-inductile factor (HIF) protein. Under hypoxic conditions, HIF pairs with another protein, ARNT. The two then bind to DNA in cells, activating genes in those cells.

Under normal oxygen conditions, ARNT combines with estrogen to activate genes. Hypoxic cells in a test tube didn't react to estrogen placed in the tube. HIF appears to render ARNT unavailable to interact with estrogen, providing a mechanism by which hypoxic conditions alter reproduction in fish. (Johanning, et al., 2004)

It might be expected that fish would flee this potential suffocation, but they are often quickly rendered unconscious and doomed. Slow moving bottom-dwelling creatures like clams, lobsters and oysters are unable to escape. All colonial animals are extinguished. The normal re-mineralization and recycling that occurs among benthic life-forms is stifled.

Locations of dead zones

In the 1970s, marine dead zones were first noted in areas where intensive economic use stimulated "first-world" scientific scrutiny: in the U.S. East Coast's Chesapeake Bay, in Scandinavia's strait called the Kattegat, which is the mouth of the Baltic Sea and in other important Baltic Sea fishing grounds, in the Black Sea, (which may have been anoxic in its deepest levels for millennia, however) and in the northern Adriatic.

Other marine dead zones have apparently appeared in coastal waters of South America, China, Japan, and southeast Australia. A 2008 study counted 405 dead zones worldwide.

Oregon - Off the coast of Cape Perpetua, Oregon, there is also a dead zone with a 2006 reported size of 300 square miles (780 km²). This dead zone only exists during the summer, perhaps due to wind patterns.

Gulf of Mexico - Currently the most notorious dead zone is a 22,126 square kilometre (8,543 mi²) region in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Mississippi River dumps high-nutrient runoff from its vast drainage basin, which includes the heart of U.S. agribusiness, the Midwest. The drainage of these nutrients are affecting important shrimp fishing grounds. This is equivalent to a dead zone the size of New Jersey. A dead zone off the coast of Texas where the Brazos River empties into the Gulf was also discovered in July 2007.

Reversal of dead zones

Dead zones are reversible. The Black Sea dead zone, previously the largest dead zone in the world, largely disappeared between 1991 and 2001 after fertilizers became too costly to use following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of centrally planned economies in Eastern and Central Europe. Fishing has again become a major economic activity in the region.

While the Black Sea "cleanup" was largely unintentional and involved a drop in hard-to-control fertilizer usage, the U.N. has advocated other cleanups by reducing large industrial emissions. From 1985 to 2000, the North Sea dead zone had nitrogen reduced by 37% when policy efforts by countries on the Rhine River reduced sewage and industrial emissions of nitrogen into the water. Other cleanups have taken place along the Hudson River and San Francisco Bay. The chemical Aluminium sulfate can be used to reduce phosphates in water.

(unquote)

Photos courtesy of Wikipedia, leisureguy.wordpress.com, SeaWiFS of NASA, and Science / AAAS

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