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Oceans Losing Oxygen at Breathtaking Speeds

Climate
Algae bloom in the Arabian sea. Norman Kuring / NASA

Ocean dead zones quadrupled in size since 1950, while low oxygen sites around the world increased tenfold, threatening large swaths of marine life, scientists warned in a study released on Friday.

"Major extinction events in Earth's history have been associated with warm climates and oxygen-deficient oceans," the analysis published in the journal Science stated.


"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," Denise Breitburg, an author of the study and researcher at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in the U.S., told the Guardian.

Human activities are largely responsible for the growth of ocean dead zones. Climate change, caused by fossil fuel emissions, is behind the large-scale removal of oxygen in open waters. Open oceans have naturally low oxygen areas that typically lay west of continents due to the Earth's rotation.

Coastal zones, which provide jobs to 350 million people, are now home to at least 500 known dead zones, though that number could be much higher. According to the study, these areas have increased by an area roughly the size of the European Union since 1950, when there were 50 reported around the world.

This global map indicates coastal sites where industrial activity, including large-scale and chemical-intense farming, are suffocating ocean life. International Oceanographic Commission / Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

In coastal regions, algae blooms are the main culprits behind dead zones. Manure, sewage and fertilizers create these blooms. When the algae decomposes it sucks oxygen out of the water.

"This is a problem we can solve," Breitburg told the Guardian, pointing to the River Thames in the UK and the Chesapeake Bay in the U.S., where improved sewage and agricultural practices helped remove dead zones.

"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," Robert Diaz, a professor at the Virginia institute of Marine Science who reviewed the study, told the Guardian.

"No other variable of such ecological importance to coastal ecosystems has changed so drastically in such a short period of time from human activities as dissolved oxygen," Diaz said.

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"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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