April 16, 2010
Entering the Death Zone
Dead. Empty. Void. These are some of the words used to describe sections of the ocean
that had previously been teeming with life. But that was before it was touched by humans,
before shipping lanes and pollution tainted the ocean, before the imbalance. The Ocean was
once kept in equilibrium by the food chain: the plankton on the water’s surface created biological
material, which sank to the bottom of the ocean enriching the water with oxygen. Then, keeping
the balance, the bottom feeding bacteria ate the biological material and produced carbon dioxide,
in a process called bacterial respiration. This cycle happens all over the globe facilitating plants
and animals to breath underwater. However, when runoff taints the ocean, the plankton to
bacteria ratio is altered, depleting the oxygen in the water and killing off all life. Since the ocean
is a huge flowing mass it seems like it would be difficult to section off areas of water and
designate them “dead.” Yet the sectors are present, always bordering the shorelines and port
cities where water stills and pollution gathers, devastating the local marine environment.
A main factor that creates dead zones is runoff water. This pollution often contains
fertilizers, which supplies the plankton with minerals and nutrients encouraging the plant to grow
and release more biological material. With the increased food source the bacteria also increases
in number and consumes the plankton turning the oxygen rich substance into carbon dioxide gas.
This creates hypoxic zones, areas with too little oxygen to support life. One of the main places
off of the United States coast which has become a hypoxic zone is the coast line around New
Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River drains into the warm gulf carrying with it
all of the fertilizers and pollutants from the Midwest farms, affecting the marine life from afar.
Once the contaminants enter the gulf many people assume it will dissipate and cause little harm
to the environment. This would be the case if the waste wasn’t caught in still waters created by
shipping lanes and lochs. The dirty water is trapped while the natural water flow is diverted and
the depleted areas ore not renewed with the fresh oxygen filled water.
Commercial Fishing Lanes in 2008
(National Center for Ecological Analysis and World Hypoxic and Eutrophic Coastal
The impact on fishermen is almost as devastating as that on the fish. Since the fishermen
rely on the fishing lanes close to shore, they search for the marine animals ineffectively in the
dead zones. When fish are forced to flee the pockets of contaminated water they adapt by
swimming in new locations farther from the shore. Therefore, the dead zones force fishermen to
sail farther to reach their livelihood, which in turn merely expands the dead zones.
Unfortunately, the slower moving marine wildlife such as crustaceans, starfish, plants, etc.
cannot escape the hypoxic zone, like fish, and they are bound to drown in their own homes. This
is depleting the lobster and crab population as they predominantly live from the rocky coastline
to the continental shelf, areas threatened by dead zones. With these limited space requirements
also being exhausted by shipping lanes and pollution, the big blue sea is getting much more
The warm ocean breezes foreshadow another detrimental occurrence within the sea.
Global warming has more effects than merely changing the world’s weather patterns; it also
lowers the amount of oxygen that can be absorbed within the water. On an everyday basis we
see this when a chef boils a pot of water, bubbles of oxygen separate from the liquid as the
temperature is increased. Globally this means that when the greenhouse gasses released by
automobiles, farm animals, and other pollutants trap heat within the Earth’s atmosphere the
temperature of the ocean rises. The heated water doesn’t dissolve as much life giving oxygen
and therefore fewer plants and animals will be able survive underwater. Also about one third of
the human production of gaseous CO2 gets dissolved in the vast oceans, slowly turning the water
more acidic (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute). With more CO2 absorbed and less O2
dissolved in the water life is made unbearable for marine animals. Imagine the thousands of
pounds of fish washing up on sandy beaches, rotting because they could not escape the increased
temperatures and lack of oxygen. Their gills flapping as they slowly drown in the dry water.
The genocide of marine animals and the resulting effect on the human, flora, and fauna’s
food supply would be cataclysmic. Sadly the situation doesn’t appear to be improving; the
number of dead zones has increased from the 146 systems reported in 2004 to over 400 reported
in 2008 (Owen). However, some efforts have been made and 13 systems are beginning to
dissolve oxygen and harbor sea animals once again. The Global Ministerial Environmental
Forum made strides in addressing the dead zone conundrum especially focusing on the Nitrogen
runoff spurring plankton growth. The consensus was that countries would try to reduce nitrogen
emissions produced by automobiles, decontaminate sewage waters better before releasing it into
open waters, and endeavor to find alternative energy sources that don’t release greenhouse
gasses. On a more definitive international level, the European nations that border the Rhine
River agreed to reduce by half the level of Nitrogen released into the river and hence into the
North Sea. Granted all of these proposals are difficult to enforce and measure as countries have
little influence on others’ internal policies.
On the home front, the United States has tried to fine businesses for polluting public
waters illegally. This is a good way for the government to make money but the environment is
still at a loss. Large businesses pay off the government fines, viewing it as a normal transaction,
completely disregarding the environmental consequences. Also it is sometimes difficult to
pinpoint who is at fault for the contaminants in the water. Farmers in the Midwest disregard
their fertilizer’s runoff, which seems insignificant, but then all of the farmers’ waste builds up. It
isn’t economically feasible to tax each farmer for such a minimal and easily contested fine. In an
attempt to lower the amount of vehicles producing excessive amounts of green house gases,
President Obama began a limited policy entitled “Cash for Clunkers,” which involved turning in
inefficient cars for energy saving new cars at a reduced rate. The ideas behind this program were
well intentioned and foresighted as the poisonous CO2 gas that is overwhelming our atmosphere
and water supply takes about a hundred years to fully disperse (“Global Warming Quiz”). The
largely unregulated release and accumulation of green house gases must be cut back immediately
to mitigate the environmental disasters that will be released against our children and our
In the interest of protecting the future of all the peoples of the world, there are many
options that the government can explore to reduce the pollution and runoff that cause dead zones.
The first step would be to create a clear system, maintained by the government and universities,
to continuously record and monitor the amounts of toxins released into the water. Based on this
information the government can create guidelines that restrict nutrient pollution. Robert
Howarth, Editor-in Chief of Biogeochemistry and professor at Cornell University, believes that
the implication of a nationwide plan has the potential to lower the amount of damage to costal
ecosystems by twenty-five percent over the next twenty years. With the federal government
providing clear legislation the state governments will not quarrel over boundaries and
prosecution rights, letting violators slip through the cracks. However, the government moves
slowly making environmental decisions so, it is important that American citizens write to their
Congressional leaders and make sure action is taken at the highest level.
While the government deliberates action there are a plethora of tricks and techniques that
everyone can do to reduce their own carbon emissions and pollution. One tactic is to lower the
thermostat 2°F in the winter and increase 2°F in the summer, which will lower energy bills and
save about 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year from being released into the atmosphere
(Petrone). In fact by simply wrapping an insulated blanket around the thermostat, it can save
1,000 pounds of CO2 yearly. Common solutions like recycling cannot be overlooked as people
can eliminate 2,400 pounds of carbon dioxide by recycling half of a household’s waste. With
these helpful tips and the hundreds more offered on the internet a citizen can reduce their carbon
dioxide emissions substantially, reducing the amount of greenhouse gases heating the oceans and
overwhelming the oxygen supply.
We can make a difference. So write to Congress and make our voices heard. Follow
through with energy conserving decisions especially by reducing, reusing, and recycling. Help
stop the millions of marine animals from perishing due to human negligence and the yearly
150,000 worldwide deaths blamed on global warming (“Global Warming Quiz”). With global
participation, the plankton to bacteria ratio in the ocean can be balanced again and create thriving
ecosystems out of dead zones. Make the words that describe the ocean once again be: diverse,
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