Dynamics and distribution of natural and human-caused hypoxia

N. N. Rabalais1, R. J. D´ıaz2, L. A. Levin3, R. E. Turner4, D. Gilbert5, and J. Zhang6

 Abstract. Water masses can become undersaturated with oxygen when natural processes alone or in combination with anthropogenic processes produce enough organic carbon that is aerobically decomposed faster than the rate of oxygen reaeration. The dominant natural processes usually involved are photosynthetic carbon production and microbial respiration.

The re-supply rate is indirectly related to its isolation from the surface layer. Hypoxic water masses (<2 mg L−1, or approximately 30% saturation) can form, therefore, under “natural” conditions, and are more likely to occur in marine systems when the water residence time is extended, water exchange and ventilation are minimal, stratification occurs, and where carbon production and export to the bottom layer are relatively high. Hypoxia has occurred through geological time and naturally occurs in oxygen minimum zones, deep basins, eastern boundary upwelling systems, and fjords.

Hypoxia development and continuation in many areas of the world’s coastal ocean is accelerated by human activities, especially where nutrient loading increased in the Anthropocene. This higher loading set in motion a cascading set of events related to eutrophication. The formation of hypoxic areas has been exacerbated by any combination of interactions that increase primary production and accumulation of organic carbon leading to increased respiratory demand for oxygen below a seasonal or permanent pycnocline.


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