Ocean's harmful low-oxygen zones growing, are sensitive to small changes in climate

June 17, 2011 By Kim DeRose
Curtis Deutsch

(PhysOrg.com) -- Fluctuations in climate can drastically affect the habitability of marine ecosystems, according to a new study by UCLA scientists that examined the expansion and contraction of low-oxygen zones in the ocean.

The UCLA research team, led by assistant professor of atmospheric and Curtis Deutsch, used a specialized computer simulation to demonstrate for the first time that the size of low-oxygen zones created by respiring bacteria is extremely sensitive to changes in depth caused by oscillations in . These oxygen-depleted regions, which expand or contract depending on their depth, pose a distinct threat to .

"The growth of low-oxygen regions is cause for concern because of the detrimental effects on marine populations — entire ecosystems can die off when marine life cannot escape the low-oxygen water," said Deutsch. "There are widespread areas of the where marine life has had to flee or develop very peculiar adaptations to survive in low-oxygen conditions."

The study, which was published June 9 in the online edition the journal Science and will be available in an upcoming print edition, also showed that in addition to consuming , marine bacteria are causing the depletion of nitrogen, an essential nutrient necessary for the survival of most types of algae.

"We found there is a mechanism that connects climate and its effect on oxygen to the removal of nitrogen from the ocean," Deutsch said. "Our climate acts to change the total amount of nutrients in the ocean over the timescale of decades."

Low-oxygen zones are created by bacteria living in the deeper layers of the ocean that consume oxygen by feeding on dead algae that settle from the surface. Just as mountain climbers might feel adverse effects at high altitudes from a lack of air, marine animals that require oxygen to breathe find it difficult or impossible to live in these oxygen-depleted environments, Deutsch said.

Sea surface temperatures vary over the course of decades through a climate pattern called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, during which small changes in depth occur for existing low-oxygen regions, Deutsch said. Low-oxygen regions that rise to warmer, shallower waters expand as bacteria become more active; regions that sink to colder, deeper waters shrink as the bacteria become more sluggish, as if placed in a refrigerator.

"We have shown for the first time that these low-oxygen regions are intrinsically very sensitive to small changes in climate," Deutsch said. "That is what makes the growth and shrinkage of these low-oxygen regions so dramatic."

Molecular oxygen from the atmosphere dissolves in sea water at the surface and is transported to deeper levels by ocean circulation currents, where it is consumed by bacteria, Deutsch said.

"The oxygen consumed by bacteria within the deeper layers of the ocean is replaced by water circulating through the ocean," he said. "The water is constantly stirring itself up, allowing the deeper parts to occasionally take a breath from the atmosphere."

A lack of oxygen is not the only thing fish and other marine life must contend with, according to Deutsch. When oxygen is very low, the will begin to consume nitrogen, one of the most important nutrients that sustain marine life.

"Almost all algae, the very base of the food chain, use nitrogen to stay alive," Deutsch said. "As these low-oxygen regions expand and contract, the amount of nutrients available to keep the algae alive at the surface of the ocean goes up and down."

Understanding the causes of oxygen and nitrogen depletion in the ocean is important for determining the effect on fisheries and fish populations, he said.

Deutsch and his team used a computer model of ocean circulation and biological processes that produce or consume oxygen to predict how the ocean's oxygen distribution has changed over the past half century. The researchers tested their predictions using observations made over the last several decades, specifically targeting areas where oxygen concentration is already low, because marine life in these areas will feel the changes most quickly.

How would rising global temperatures affect these low-oxygen environments?

As temperature increases, less oxygen leaves the atmosphere to dissolve in the ocean, Deutsch explained. Additionally, the shallower levels of the ocean heat up and become more buoyant, slowing the oxygen circulation to lower layers.

"In the case of a global temperature increase, we expect that low-oxygen regions will grow in size, similar to what happened at the end of the last ice age 30,000 years ago," Deutsch said. "Since these regions change greatly in size from decade to decade due to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, more data is required before we can recognize an overall trend.

"Global warming will almost certainly influence the amount of oxygen in the ocean, but we expect it to be a slow effect that takes place over long periods of time," he added. "There are huge changes in the volume of this low-oxygen water, but the changes oscillate in a natural cycle instead of a persistent growth as many expected. Oxygen comes and goes in the ocean in a way that is not attributable to the long-term warming of the planet. Instead, it is part of the natural rhythm of the ocean."

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3 / 5 (4) Jun 17, 2011
There is absolutely no proof that capitalism is behind this decline in ocean productivity.

It is pure slander.
not rated yet Jun 17, 2011
Presumably this variation in oxygen and nitrogen concentrations and/or the geographical extent of the effects will increase similarly to the way climate and weather variations are increasing as more energy stays in the system overall due to global warming.

Given the importance of ocean fish as food to vast numbers of people around the world, I think it is extremely important to act soon to fix the problems of ocean acidification, oxygen depletion, and loss of biodiversity. I think the only way this can be achieved is by people [us] causing the growth of billions of tonnes of extra seaweed over and above what occurs naturally.

I have a very feasible proposal of how to do this. The outline of it can be found at http : // weareanewspecies . blogspot . com/ [take out the spaces to work the magic!]
1 / 5 (5) Jun 18, 2011
Wake up! The whole climate scandal is suddenly falling apart.

1. Mark Lynas: Questions the IPCC must now urgently answer.


2. Professor Judith Curry: "An opening mind. Part II"


Federal research agencies that supported this propaganda campaign have no choice now. Budget reviews are ahead and their future does not look bright.

The climate game is over.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo
1 / 5 (3) Jun 18, 2011
There is absolutely no proof that capitalism is behind this decline in ocean productivity.

It is pure slander.

This short video on global warming may help:

not rated yet Jun 19, 2011
Well I am inclined to accept the descriptions contained in the the Wikipedia article on global warming @
http: // en.wikipedia . org / wiki / Global_warming [remove spaces]

One significant feature of anthropogenic atmosphere pollution the Wiki article mentions, which the mono-maniac youtube video didn't, is the global cooling effect caused by micro sized particulates coming from power station smoke stacks and diesel engine exhausts. These particulates act as nuclei for the formation of water droplets or ice crystals but high up in the troposphere. The significant aspect of these particulates though is that they are not ionic and do not encourage the growth of water droplets heavy enough to fall to Earth. The clouds formed by these droplets are thin but reflect solar energy back into space. One theory is that this effect, caused by dirty and incomplete combustion, has been masking the general warming effect.

cont ...
not rated yet Jun 19, 2011
.... cont.
The western industrialised countries have been legislating to curb such particulate pollution over the last few decades in order to protect the air quality in towns and cities. The net effect has been a reduction in that sort of clouds. This may account for the lesser warming or actual cooling in some places around the Earth during the 20C, but now the pace of global warming has picked up.
1 / 5 (2) Jun 19, 2011
Please consider the diversity of opinions posted here:



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