Monday, January 24, 2011

January 24, 2011 : Dead Zones

Dead Zones

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.

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, and the Elizabeth River in Virginia Beach, all of which have been shown to be recurring events over the last several years.

Related Articles
: Fish Kill and Algae Blooms

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