An ocean dead zone is an area where there is not enough oxygen dissolved in the water to allow aquatic creatures to breath. To put it in perspective, imagine a person locked in a sealed chamber in which the level of oxygen is slowly but steadily decreased until they lie gasping for breath until they eventually suffocate. If you are incapable of feeling empathy for your fellow human beings like the current occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, then imagine its your favorite dog inside that chamber.
The latest research, published in the journal Science on January 5, says, “Major extinction events in Earth’s history have been associated with warm climates and oxygen-deficient oceans.” The latest study comes from an international working group created in 2016 by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, a component of UNESCO. Lead researcher Kirsten Isensee says, “Ocean deoxygenation is taking place all over the world as a result of the human footprint, therefore we also need to address it globally.”
In the US, the research team was led by Denise Breitburg of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. She warns, “Under the current trajectory, that is where we would be headed. But the consequences to humans of staying on that trajectory are so dire that it is hard to imagine we would go quite that far down that path.”
Maybe for you, Denise, but anyone who is familiar with the stunning disregard for the environment and people displayed by the fossil fuel industry over the past 60 years would know the Koch Brothers, ExxonMobil, and their ilk would happily exterminate every person on earth if it means they would increase their wealth by ten cents. Staying on the current trajectory is precisely what those people have in mind.
Robert Diaz, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, has reviewed the new study and tells The Guardian, “Right now, the increasing expansion of coastal dead zones and decline in open ocean oxygen are not priority problems for governments around the world. Unfortunately, it will take severe and persistent mortality of fisheries for the seriousness of low oxygen to be realized.”
The report says the number of dead zones has increased to well over 500 versus about 50 in 1950. Most are found on the west coast of continents due to the way the rotation of the earth affects ocean currents. Rising average temperatures lead to warmer water and warmer water cannot hold as much dissolved oxygen. The oxygen level has fallen by about 2% in the past 70 years, equivalent to roughly 77 billion tons. The zones are also impacted by sewage and fertilizer runoff in coastal areas.
There are certain microscopic species that thrive in low oxygen environments but when they die, they give off nitrous oxide, the same nasty stuff that spews out of the tailpipes of diesel-powered cars and is toxic to humans. It is also a 300-times-more-powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
About 500 million people depend on food from the ocean. The fishing industry provides about 350 million jobs worldwide. The loss of those jobs and the food they provide would be catastrophic both economically and politically. But Denise Breitburg remains optimistic. “This is a problem we can solve,” she says. “Halting climate change requires a global effort, but even local actions can help with nutrient-driven oxygen decline.” She points out that after steps were taken to control fertilizer and sewage runoff in the Chesapeake Bay and the Thames river estuary, the dead zones in those areas disappeared.
So concerted action could address the problem. But it that means people and governments would have to learn how to stop treating the earth as a communal toilet. Just yesterday, the Trump administration announced it is opening most coastal waters to oil and gas exploration, including fracking, which means the US will not be party to any relief efforts for endangered oceans any time soon. Maybe China and Europe will step up as America continues its slow retreat to an 18th century culture.