Oceans are Desperately Gasping for Breath

Remember not to kill the messenger, but here’s yet another consequence of a warming climate; hypoxia. By 2030 there could be vast dead zones in our oceans. Once the oceans are dead, we’re not far behind.

Eventually we’ll reach a point where terrestrial systems will start to suffer from the secondary effects of a dead ocean. Basically the whole house of cards will collapse.

Hypoxia

So what is hypoxia? This simply refers to zones where oxygen levels in the ocean are so low that they can no longer support life. Immobile organisms die, while mobile organisms like fish leave the area. The result is a biological desert in the ocean.

Hypoxia
One of the largest dead zones in the world — about the size of New Jersey — exists in the Gulf of Mexico, where runoff from across the Midwestern United States is deposited via the Mississippi River. Photo credit – Wikimedia Commons

These dead zones can happen naturally, and on a temporary basis. One of the largest dead zones forms in the Gulf of Mexico every spring. Each spring as farmers fertilize their lands preparing for crop season, rain washes fertilizer off the land and into streams and rivers eventually making their way into our oceans.  In the same way that nitrogen and phosphorous fertilize human crops, they also fertilize plants in the ocean. The spring delivery of nutrients initiates a seasonal progression of biological processes that ultimately leads to the depletion of oxygen in the bottom water.

Gasping for Breath

Much of the oxygen that the ocean receives is from mixing that occurs at the surface. Some is also contributed by phytoplankton. According to a study by Yale’s Environment 360, as our oceans warm the surface seawater becomes light and will be less likely to mix with deeper waters.

Another study led by scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) warns that the decrease in dissolved oxygen already is evident in the southern Indian Ocean and parts of the eastern tropical Pacific and Atlantic basin.

Summary

It doesn’t take much imagination to play through what will happen as our ocean start to die. Industries which rely on the bounty of the sea will collapse, individuals who rely on the oceans for subsistence will starve. Eventually we’ll reach a point where terrestrial systems will start to suffer from the secondary effects of a dead ocean. Basically the whole house of cards will collapse.

It will take people smarter than me, but I can’t help but believe that if we created this problem we’re smart enough to fix it. The question is do we have time?

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