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Oceans suffocating as huge dead zones quadruple since 1950, scientists warn

Oceans suffocating as huge dead zones quadruple since 1950, scientists warn

The volume of water completely devoid of oxygen has quadrupled since the 1950s, according to a study.

The only solution, scientists say, is to aggressively address climate change and pollution runoff. "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 USA, told the Guardian.

"All animals need to breathe oxygen and we know that regions of the ocean that are losing oxygen are becoming more and more common". A review was published on Thursday in Science and it reveals the causes and also the consequences if the ocean continues to run out of oxygen. The article highlights the biggest dangers to the ocean and society, and what it will take to keep Earth's waters healthy and productive.

The latest findings are alarming because almost half of the oxygen on Earth comes from the ocean. When fish avoid these dead zones and move to other regions, they become more vulnerable to predators or fishing due to change in habitat. But the problem goes far beyond "dead zones", the authors point out. Low oxygen also can trigger the release of unsafe chemicals like nitrous oxide, which is up to 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide. While some animals can thrive in dead zones, overall biodiversity falls. But at sea, it is certainly climate change that is the main culprit, by far. As the ocean surface gets warmer, it's harder for oxygen to reach its interior.

The latest data shows expanses of no-oxygen in the open ocean have increased four-fold over the last half-century. Harmful algal blooms, and the zero-oxygen "dead zones" they create in both fresh and salt water, have grown worse in recent years. On top of that, warmer water simply doesn't hold as much oxygen and less oxygen dissolves and gets into the water, she said.

"It's a tremendous loss to all the support services that rely on recreation and tourism, hotels and restaurants and taxi drivers and everything else", said Lisa Levin, a co-author and marine biologist with the University of California, San Diego. "As seas are losing oxygen, those areas are no longer habitable by many organisms". Howevere, neither issue is simple or easy.

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Researchers said that to keep low oxygen in check, people need to implement better septic systems and sanitation to protect human health and keep pollution out of the water. Cutting fossil fuel emissions not only cuts greenhouse gases and fights climate change, but also slashes unsafe air pollutants like mercury.

First, warmer waters cannot absorb as much oxygen.

"The low oxygen problem is the biggest unknown climate change effect out there", said Lisa Levin, a study co-author and professor of biological oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Researchers believe that the world needs to rein in both climate change and nutrient pollution in order to halt the decline.

She pointed to recoveries in Chesapeake Bay in the USA and the Thames river in the United Kingdom, where better farm and sewage practices led to dead zones disappearing. While some low-oxygen zones persist, the area of the Chesapeake with zero oxygen has nearly disappeared. But climate change increased the frequency of severe events to about once every six years.

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center is the leading national research center for environmental issues in the coastal zone.

The research, sponsored by an worldwide body affiliated with UNESCO, finds the problem has been growing since the 1950s.


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