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Aquatic Dead Zones – Global Ecological Disasters

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Aquatic Dead Zones

Global Ecological Disasters

Pollution and mismanagement are straining the ecosystems of the world’s ocean and freshwater bodies.

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Off the shore of every continent, swaths of bacteria rob oxygen from thousands of miles of ocean and cause sea life to flee or die.

Pollutants disrupt the ecological balance of the world’s waterways and create massive ocean and lake “dead zones” where animals cannot survive.

The most well-known of these is in the Gulf of Mexico where fertilizers and other wastes devastate marine equilibrium. During the worst seasons, much of the Gulf, from the Mississippi River to the border of Mexico, is robbed of oxygen, which destroys life in the area.

Researchers report that the problem continues to worsen and many fear the damage may be permanent.

Chemical Destruction

Many of the chemicals and fertilizers dumped into rivers are high in phosphorus and nitrogen. Both of these elements are key ingredients in the growth of certain algae, particularly phytoplankton. These algae are natural stabilizers that help balance the rivers and seas. By feeding on these nutrients and other chemicals, the algae preserve the aquatic environment for other creatures.

But too much of these chemicals can be damaging. Algae proliferate with the increase in phosphorus and nitrogen from the billions of tons of fertilizer and waste washed off the land and into the waterways. This produces what is called an algae bloom. As the bacteria feed on the algae, thousands of miles of oceans and lakes become hypoxic—low in oxygen.

In addition to abundant phosphorus and nitrogen, the growth of algae is stimulated by exposure to sunlight. This is one of the major reasons colonies of algae are appearing where rivers flow into oceans—where they can receive plenty of sunlight over a wide area.

The overly abundant algae eventually die and drop to the bottom of the bodies of water where the cleanup then continues through bacteria. Bacteria break down and digest algae, which releases carbon dioxide and consumes large quantities of oxygen.

In the end, animal life either suffocates or migrates to escape the rolling cloud of dead water.

Global Problem

Dead zones worldwide have increased exponentially, according to the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science. Despite conservation efforts, more than 400 systems have been affected and more than 150,000 square miles devastated. Many of these areas are subject to a seasonal ebb and flow. During the summer, additional rain spreads the chemicals and increased sunlight provides ideal conditions for algae to blossom. In some places, less-active currents and constructed dams for irrigation further exacerbate the problem by restricting the ability of water to circulate and replace depleted oxygen.

Billions of fish were killed in 2012 around the globe—with 55 million deaths in China alone (Xinhua). In Puget Sound in northwest Washington, the algae bloom of June 2012 was described as “unprecedented” by local authorities.

Besides creating this imbalance of oxygen exchange, certain algae also produce powerful toxins that can cause illness and death in animals and humans. One particular variation, blue-green algae, is so toxic that even recreational contact, such as swimming, can cause adverse health effects.

Lake Tai of China was notorious for its 2007 blue-green algae bloom that contaminated “the drinking water for millions of people and [sparked] panic-buying of bottled water…” Prices skyrocketed from $1 for a two-gallon bottle to over $6 (The Associated Press).

Even after a multibillion-dollar cleanup, Reuters reported, much of the water in the country remains unsafe to drink and China’s “environment ministry said 43 percent of the locations it was monitoring in 2011 contained water that was not even fit for human contact.”

Another blue-green algae bloom in Lake Erie was “so vast that in 2011 it covered a sixth of its waters, contributing to an expanding dead zone on its bottom, reducing fish populations, fouling beaches and crippling a tourism industry that generates more than $10 billion in revenue annually,” according to an article in The New York Times.

“It is perhaps the greatest peril the lake has faced since the 1960s when relentless and unregulated dumping of sewage and industrial pollutants spawned similar algae blooms and earned it the nickname ‘North America’s Dead Sea.’ Erie recovered then, thanks to a multibillion-dollar cleanup by the United States and Canada that became a legendary environmental success story.

“But while the sewage and pollutants are vastly reduced, the blooms have returned, bigger than ever.”

Later the article stated, “That [2011] algae bloom, mostly poisonous blue-green algae called Microcystis, sprawled nearly 120 miles, from Toledo to past Cleveland. It produced lake-water concentrations of microcystin, a liver toxin, that were 1,200 times World Health Organization limits, tainting the drinking water for 2.8 million consumers.”

Other bodies of water throughout North America experience similar problems, including Lake Winnipeg, one of the largest lakes in Canada.

The algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico pose an even greater threat to humans. When cells of the plankton are ruptured by waves, the toxins can become airborne and produce asthma-like symptoms. In addition, a study by scientists from the North Carolina State University and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that this algae, known as Karenia brevis, becomes two to seven times more toxic when phosphorus levels are low.

While occasional algae blooms occurred naturally in times past, the increase and severity today is considered to be a direct effect of man’s pollution.

Interdependent Life

Nothing on Earth happens in a vacuum. As one of the planet’s delicate ecosystems becomes destabilized, the effects are felt in other ecological communities around the world. The ability of various interrelated plant and sea life to withstand repeated widespread disruption is unknown. However, the destruction is reaching a threshold where the damage may become irreversible and wipe out entire ecosystems.

Ecological Balance

Many are familiar with the concept of a “food chain” or a “food web.” These depict the flow of energy, or food, throughout an ecosystem or related group of organisms. At the bottom of the food chain are always the producers—organisms that receive their energy from the sun (and sometimes thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean). Moving up the chain are different levels of consumers—creatures that receive their energy by preying on others. A simplified example of a food chain: a plant produces energy from the sun, an ant eats the plant, a spider eats the ant, and a bird eats the spider.

The continued existence of all the related organisms depends on there being neither too few nor too many of the organisms in any link in the chain. This interdependence among the different organisms within an ecosystem is called ecological balance. Generally speaking, any ecosystem will maintain ecological balance, unless something artificially changes the number of creatures at any level of the food chain.

Going back to our example, if some kind of chemical were released that only affected spiders, then there would be too few spiders to keep the population of the ants from exploding. Then, with there being too many ants eating the plants, the ants would eventually consume all of the plants. This would then kill off the ants as they would have nothing to eat. In turn, the spiders would have no ants to eat and would also die. And finally the birds would perish without any spiders to consume.

The concept of ecological balance applies not only within a single ecosystem, but also among the different ecosystems on the planet. Since creatures are able to feed on more than one food source, an organism whose normal food supply runs out will begin to search elsewhere and thereby encroach on another ecosystem. If one ecosystem is significantly unbalanced, it can lead to the destruction of other related ecosystems.

Since all life on Earth is connected in this way, it is possible for significant destruction in one area to impact many other organisms on the planet.

“An international panel of marine scientists has warned that the world’s oceans are at risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history,” according to a University of Oxford news release.

“After examining evidence on the impact of factors such as pollution, acidification, ocean warming, overfishing and hypoxia (deoxygenation) the group agreed that ocean ecosystems may be unable to recover after ‘being constantly bombarded with multiple attacks’.”

“The panel concluded that the combination of stresses the ocean is exposed to is creating the conditions associated with every previous major extinction of species in Earth’s history,” the report continues. “The speed and rate of degeneration in the oceans is far faster than anyone predicted and the damage being done worse than anticipated. The decline in reef-forming corals could, scientists believe, be the first sign of a globally-significant extinction.”

Professor Alex Rogers of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology and scientific director of the International Programme on the State of the Oceans “commented that even if the destruction was limited to the extinction of coral reef ecosystems, something likely to occur by the end of this century, this would constitute in itself a ‘mass extinction’ event because of the estimated nine million species associated with coral reefs.”

Already in 2013, one marine species is facing dire circumstances. Manatees have been threatened by human development for decades, with fewer than 5,000 in existence. The primary culprit had been boat propellers injuring them, but along the coast of Florida, “…manatees face a new killer. It’s red tide, a natural algae bloom that has released microscopic toxins that cling to vegetation the manatees eat. Those toxins get into the manatee’s nervous system and paralyze them. If they can’t come up for air every few minutes, they drown.

“This year alone, red tide has killed 181 manatees, a record,” CBS News reported.

The economic impact of depopulating aquatic life is being felt in many areas around the world. In February, tens of thousands of herring (valued at $9.8 million) were found dead in a fjord in Iceland due to low oxygen levels. Researchers in the area said that one whole season’s worth of herring has been lost within two months.

As the population continues to increase, the basic principle of supply and demand shows that humanity’s pattern of environmental abuse cannot last much longer.

Typical Reactions

For many, warnings about mankind destroying the planet seem all too familiar: “Man’s overindulgence is damaging the environment” and “The damage may be catastrophic.” But the typical reaction is: None of these things have directly affected me. Therefore, none of them ever will. These warnings seem to be just another instance of “the boy who cried wolf.”

But the problem remains—humanity does not really know how much this planet can take. Most choose to hope for the best and essentially stick their heads in the sand. Others do not care and think life is too short to worry about such things. A third group jumps in the other ditch and devotes their entire lives to “speaking out” and “making the earth green again.”

Still others are driven by greed: “The huge costs suggest that treatment, rather than prevention, remains the preferred solution, with industrial growth paramount and pollution regarded as just another economic opportunity…” (Reuters).

Reports have indicated that the dead zone issue is being exacerbated by the turn to ethanol, which comes from corn. The increased production of corn is leading to more runoff into the world’s waterways. While trying to help in one area, mankind is ruining another.

It becomes ever more obvious that man is damaging the world around him. If it is not the seas, it is the skies; if it is not the skies, it is the land; if it is not the land, even space is being polluted. Just like any home or vehicle subject to continual abuse, the environment will eventually wear out and no longer function correctly. Together, these things point to a major problem—a problem that no one has been able to solve.


There are, and will continue to be, many quick-fix remedies that will look good, yet fail to deliver. However, there is a solution and it will not come from where you might think.

To learn more, read the thorough, free book Mounting Worldwide Crisis in Agriculture. It shows the way to resolve man’s ever-increasing issues and provides hope for the coming years!

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