DEAD ZONE: Waters with little or no oxygen continue to form in coastal areas worldwide thanks to fertilizer washing off agricultural fields and fossil fuel burning. Image: COURTESY OF SCIENCE/AAAS
More bad news for the world's oceans: Dead zones—areas of bottom waters too oxygen depleted to support most ocean life—are spreading, dotting nearly the entire east and south coasts of the U.S. as well as several west coast river outlets.
According to a new study in Science, the rest of the world fares no better—there are now 405 identified dead zones worldwide, up from 49 in the 1960s—and the world's largest dead zone remains the Baltic Sea, whose bottom waters now lack oxygen year-round.
This is no small economic matter. A single low-oxygen event (known scientifically as hypoxia) off the coasts of New York State and New Jersey in 1976 covering a mere 385 square miles (1,000 square kilometers) of seabed ended up costing commercial and recreational fisheries in the region more than $500 million. As it stands, roughly 83,000 tons (75,000 metric tons) of fish and other ocean life are lost to the Chesapeake Bay dead zone each year—enough to feed half the commercial crab catch for a year.
"More than 212,000 metric tons [235,000 tons] of food is lost to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico," says marine biologist Robert Diaz of The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., who surveyed the dead zones along with marine ecologist Rutger Rosenberg of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. "That's enough to feed 75 percent of the average brown shrimp harvest from the Louisiana gulf. If there was no hypoxia and there was that much more food, don't you think the shrimp and crabs would be happier? They would certainly be fatter."
Only a few dead zones have ever recovered, such as the Black Sea, which rebounded quickly in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and a massive reduction in fertilizer runoff from fields in Russia and Ukraine. Fertilizer contains large amounts of nitrogen, and it runs off of agricultural fields in water and into rivers, and eventually into oceans.
This fertilizer runoff, instead of contributing to more corn or wheat, feeds massive algae blooms in the coastal oceans. This algae, in turn, dies and sinks to the bottom where it is consumed by microbes, which consume oxygen in the process. More algae means more oxygen-burning, and thereby less oxygen in the water, resulting in a massive flight by those fish, crustaceans and other ocean-dwellers able to relocate as well as the mass death of immobile creatures, such as clams or other bottom-dwellers. And that's when the microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments take over, forming vast bacterial mats that produce hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas.
"The primary culprit in marine environments is nitrogen and, nowadays, the biggest contributor of nitrogen to marine systems is agriculture. It's the same scenario all over the world," Diaz says. "Farmers are not doing it on purpose. They'd prefer to have it stick on the land."
In addition to fertilizers, the other primary culprit is the consumption of fossil fuels. Burning gasoline and diesel results in smog-forming nitrogen oxides, which subsequently clear when rain washes the nitrogen out of the sky and, ultimately, into the ocean.
Technological improvements, such as electric or hydrogen cars, could solve that problem but the agricultural question is trickier. "Nitrogen is very slippery; it's very difficult to keep it on land," Diaz notes. "We need to find a technology to keep nitrogen from leaving the soil."