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The World Ocean Is Losing Its Breath, Dead Zones Increasing in Size and Number

Thursday, January 4, 2018 13:17
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In the past 50 years, the amount of water in the open ocean with zero oxygen has gone up more than fourfold. In coastal water bodies, including estuaries and seas, low-oxygen sites have increased more than 10-fold since 1950. Scientists expect oxygen to continue dropping even outside these zones as Earth warms.

To halt the decline, the world needs to rein in both climate change and nutrient pollution, an international team of scientists including Lisa Levin, a biological oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, asserted in a new paper published Jan. 4 in Science.

“Oxygen is fundamental to life in the oceans,” said Denise Breitburg, lead author and marine ecologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “The decline in ocean oxygen ranks among the most serious effects of human activities on the Earth’s environment.”

“It’s a tremendous loss to all the support services that rely on recreation and tourism, hotels and restaurants and taxi drivers and everything else,” said Levin. “The reverberations of unhealthy ecosystems in the ocean can be extensive.”

Low oxygen caused the death of these corals and others in Bocas del Toro, Panama. The dead crabs pictured also succumbed to the loss of dissolved oxygen.

Credit: Arcadio Castillo/Smithsonian 
The study came from a team of scientists from GO2NE (Global Ocean Oxygen Network), a new working group created in 2016 by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. The review paper is the first to take such a sweeping look at the causes, consequences and solutions to low oxygen worldwide, in both the open ocean and coastal waters. The article highlights the biggest dangers to the ocean and society, and what it will take to keep Earth’s waters healthy and productive.

The Stakes

“Approximately half of the oxygen on Earth comes from the ocean,” said Vladimir Ryabinin, executive secretary of the International Oceanographic Commission that formed the GO2NE group. “However, combined effects of nutrient loading and climate change are greatly increasing the number and size of ‘dead zones’ in the open ocean and coastal waters, where oxygen is too low to support most marine life.”

In areas traditionally called “dead zones,” like those in Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, oxygen plummets to levels so low many animals suffocate and die. As fish avoid these zones, their habitats shrink and they become more vulnerable to predators or fishing. But the problem goes far beyond “dead zones,” the authors point out. Even smaller oxygen declines can stunt growth in animals, hinder reproduction and lead to disease or even death. It also can trigger the release of dangerous chemicals such as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas up to 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and toxic hydrogen sulfide. While some animals can thrive in dead zones, overall biodiversity falls.

Climate change is the key culprit in the open ocean. Warming surface waters make it harder for oxygen to reach the ocean interior. Furthermore, as the ocean as a whole gets warmer, it holds less oxygen. In coastal waters, excess nutrient pollution from land creates algal blooms, which drain oxygen as they die and decompose. In an unfortunate twist, animals also need more oxygen in warmer waters, even as it is disappearing.

Low-oxygen zones are spreading around the globe. Red dots mark places on the coast where oxygen has plummeted to 2 milligrams per liter or less, and blue areas mark zones with the same low-oxygen levels in the open ocean.

Credit:  GO2NE working group. Data from World Ocean Atlas 2013 and provided by R. J. Diaz

People’s livelihoods are also on the line, the scientists reported, especially in developing nations. Smaller, artisanal fisheries may be unable to relocate when low oxygen destroys their harvests or forces fish to move elsewhere. In the Philippines, fish kills in a single town’s aquaculture pens cost more than $10 million. Coral reefs, a key tourism attraction in many countries, also can waste away without enough oxygen.

Some popular fisheries could benefit, at least in the short term. Nutrient pollution can stimulate production of food for fish. In addition, when fish are forced to crowd to escape low oxygen, they can become easier to catch. But in the long run, this could result in overfishing and damage to the economy.

Winning the War: A Three-Pronged Approach

To keep low oxygen in check, the scientists said the world needs to take on the issue from three angles:

Address the causes: nutrient pollution and climate change. While neither issue is simple or easy, the steps needed to win can benefit people as well as the environment. Better septic systems and sanitation can protect human health and keep pollution out of the water. Cutting fossil fuel emissions not only cuts greenhouse gases and fights climate change, but also slashes dangerous air pollutants like mercury.

Protect vulnerable marine life. With some low oxygen unavoidable, it is crucial to protect at-risk fisheries from further stress. According to the GO2NE team, this could mean creating marine protected areas or no-catch zones in areas animals use to escape low oxygen, or switching to fish that are not as threatened by falling oxygen levels. Improve low-oxygen tracking worldwide. Scientists have a decent grasp of how much oxygen the ocean could lose in the future, but they do not know exactly where those low-oxygen zones will be. Enhanced monitoring, especially in developing countries, and numerical models will help pinpoint which places are most at risk and determine the most effective solutions.

“This is a problem we can solve,” Breitburg said. “Halting climate change requires a global effort, but even local actions can help with nutrient-driven oxygen decline.” As proof Breitburg points to the ongoing recovery of Chesapeake Bay, where nitrogen pollution has dropped 24 percent since its peak thanks to better sewage treatment, better farming practices and successful laws like the Clean Air Act. While some low-oxygen zones persist, the area of the Chesapeake with zero oxygen has almost disappeared. “Tackling climate change may seem more daunting,” she added, “but doing it is critical for stemming the decline of oxygen in our oceans, and for nearly every aspect of life on our planet.”

Contacts and sources:
Rob Monroe 
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
University of California San Diego


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Total 12 comments
  • Takealook

    Japan and all NATO countries appear to be the worst hit. Wonder why?

  • Cerebral prolapse

    One third of all life.

  • Everette

    Anybody with half a brain knows that that warming water opens it up for more release of oxygen . But what we see today is global cooling . Meaning the molecules draw together with less release of oxygen . What we also have is volcanos going off from under the earths crust has nothing to do with global warming . But will help cause global cooling because of the blocking if the suns rays . Many volcanos are now going off , even in the oceans . Releasing sulfericic gases and many other gases . Ocean life around these areas die because of the poisonous gases . Toady the pacific region has many under ocean eruptions going off . Not to mention Japan’s nuclear reactor that melted down caused by an earthquake and tsunami . Today 600 tons of radiation is being spued into the ocean and atmosphere daily . Science states it now has covered the earth with radiation particles . All of earth has been contaminated . As these partials break down deaths will start accruing . Cancers , bleeding from the anis , vagina , and other parts of the body . limbs will be removed amputated in the near future . Science states in 70 years ALL LIFE will be dead . ALL LIFE !!! Even thise underground . Could this be the Mars retreat many are willing to leave earth for . We have an ELE ( extinction level event ) . We are living in the last days without a doubt . Jesus told us 2000 years ago that unless GOD shorten our days there would be no flesh saved on planet earth ! Well here you are ! You are in earths last days . Or lets say life’s last days . Even amebia will die . Even the riach who is radiation proof . But they will have no food so they will turn on each other until the last roach is standing . Then what ? It dies too from lack of food . So when GOD fearing people tell you that you are in the end times , believe it ! What we also see is prophecies coming true almost daily . No other time in history has so many prophices happened together . Jesus also stated when you see these signs coming to pass lift up your heads and know that your redemption draws near and the end is nigh or near . In less than 70 years this planet will be nothing but a dessert . GOD is going to have to shorten the days to the end in order for everything HE has planned left to fulfill to come to pass . I take that back GOD can do anything , HE is GOD !!! . But without HIS Blessings we all are doomed !!! When the earthquake and Tsunami broke up the reactor causing melt down the time of the end was declared . The soldiers on the USS Reagan that was 100 miles off the shore when the event happened are now many dead and others dying from break down of their bodies . Even their off spring ( children ) are having defects . 7 years into the end of days has passed . Only 63 to go ! But you got to make it to the end to claim your 63 years . Human life will have already died off before then . Much of ocean life in the pacific is dead or is finishing dying . Colorado they say has the most partials falling on planet earth . The very spot many have been buying lands and setting up for end days times . How ironic is this ? Some have ran to South America only to learn that they too have been radiated and waiting for their death sentence . Others are setting up in the South Pole trying to buy more time ! Forget global warming or cooling unless it becomes to hot or to cold that it kills you . Masses of animals and ocean life are dying by the tons . When the nations of the earth learn they are doomed , will they just pull the trigger saying either way win or loose we are dead , so let’s go out with a bang ! Even the NWO and UN that hoped to rule planet earth time has been shortened . Their holes in the ground will only buy them some time till the food supplies run out or as earthquakes increase they are squashed under tons and tons of dirt ! Hey look at it this way they will have saved on burial expenses ! There is no place to hide . It is said once leaving earth’s atmosphere you enter the van allen belt . A belt of radiation so strong it’s like a microwave oven . It is stated that we don’t have the equipment to pass thru it . Meaning did we really land on the moon ? Or better yet can we really pass thru it to go to mars and begin new life there ? If not , what then ? We only have 2 solutions , trust in GOD or die in your sins and face HIM anyway ! I hope you choose the first and enjoy eternity with HIM !

    • diane

      terrific comment. What has happen is a tragedy. Please write an article.

  • truck driver

    Off shore drilling , Fukushima, cutting down plants and trees that creates oxygen from what people breathe out. Deer stand in the road in the winter to stay warm. So pavement is warming everything up

    • 2QIK4U

      Fk the pavement its happening to the nutritious topsoils that hold all your greenery to the earth! If that dissapears which it will the earth will a desert.

  • Givys

    Global Warming? Global Cooling? Let’s con them- CLIMATE CHANGE. If you are talking about oceans only one thing to point to- Daichi Fukushima. ]If you haven’t pointed there as number source of ocean death, pollution- YOU ARE A DAMN LIAR

  • DK

    The Crabs are old shells left over when they moult, same pictures will be used in coral bleaching which is a regular event and Corals recover after expelling their algae, as usual there is a picture provided of the Earth where the seas are showing oxygen deprevation in exactly the zones of El Ninio warming, and the North Sea and Baltic do really well with now abundant fish, low oxygen is not described well ,water is H2O and a transient phase liquid where for a third of its time it becomes a gas H and O2 therefore oxygen is abundant, it is supersatuated with over 0.002% of free oxygen over this amount per liter, and the article does not explain that the ocean deeps are free oxygen reduced anyway (hypoxic) most life down there is adapted and extremophiles.

    Brought to you by the same people who gave you man made ocean acidification( (

    In short blame the sun, not man, the sea is warmed by the sun not in frequencies even remotely related to CO2 which is not absorbed by the ocean below the first 0.1 mm of its surface. As to the US East coast, the Gulf Stream from the Carrabean hugs the Eastern Seaboard all the way to Newfoundland. That carbon in the sea, well its captured by living organisms called plankton and oddly enough they are never mentioned.

    • DK

      Each is a slice of the PIE lie, they get you to believe with a nibble of a seperate slice before the whole faith is stuffed down your throat, yes its is your fault because you are Human and Live, however I see a distinct lack of Multibillionaires throwing everything away to live off the land in a teepee embracing euthanasia at 30. I wonder why.

  • 2QIK4U

    The Haarp field in the Ocean at Rothschilds region Antarctica needs to be destroyed! Perfect place to! The only place in the world where EVERYONE is banned unless you are Monitored. :(

  • 2QIK4U

    Your posts look better with comments dont they ;)

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