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Oceans: Baltic Sea dead zones growing

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Hypoxic areas are growing in the Baltic Sea.

Global warming seen as factor in hypoxia

Staff Report

FRISCO — The Gulf of Mexico isn’t the only place in the world with a dead-zone problem, European researchers says hypoxia is affecting a growing section of the Baltic Sea.

Overall, the dead zones  now total 60,000 square kilometers, more than 10 times bigger than it was in 1900, according to Scandinavian university researchers. The main cause is the same as it is everywhere else — nutrient pollution from land — and warmer ocean temperatures are exacerbating the problem.

In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the scientists point out that the deepest areas of the Baltic Sea have always had a low oxygen content due to a limited inflow of fresh water at the entrance of the sea. At the same time, there is a relatively fresh layer above the denser and saltier water in the deep layer of the sea. This results in an effective stratification of the water column, which prevents the mixing of water masses necessary to transfer oxygen to the water at the bottom.

“We analyzed data for the water temperature, oxygen content and salinity stretching back for 115 years. On the basis of this analysis, we can determine that the many nutrients from the land are the main cause of the widespread oxygen depletion,” says Professor Jacob Carstensen, Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University.

Oxygen depletion occurs when the oxygen uptake at the bottom exceeds the amount of oxygen brought to the deeper water layers via currents and mixing by the wind. During the last twenty years, climate change has also played a role in the poor oxygen situation. Warmer conditions reduce the solubility of oxygen from the atmosphere and increase oxygen consumption because the biological respiration processes are boosted.

“The water temperature has risen and will continue to rise in the years ahead. It’s therefore extra important that all the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea are committed to the Baltic Sea action plan they joined, and that they comply with the necessary efforts to reduce the release of nutrients into the Baltic,” emphasises Professor Carstensen, who is also director of the Baltic Nest Institute in Denmark.

Oxygen depletion on the seabed has a negative impact on the entire ecosystem. This is partly because the seabed turns into a ‘desert’ inhabited only by bacteria that can survive without or with very low amounts of oxygen. Some bacteria produce methane, which can bubble up to the water and tear large areas of the toxic, hydrogen sulphide-rich seabed with it. This involves sediment disturbances that can kill fish high up in the water column.

Studies show that it takes decades before benthic fauna once more return to a dead seabed when the oxygen conditions improve.

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3 Responses

  1. “Global temperatures could rise more than 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. What does that mean? The National Research Council says just one extra degree of warmth could mean up to a 15% reduction in crop yields, and up to a 400% greater area burned by wildfires in the American West.” http://clmtr.lt/c/Fh40Bbn0cMJ

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