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Hypoxia by degrees: Establishing definitions for a changing ocean

Deep Sea Research Part I Oceanographic Research Papers
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/j.dsr.2011.09.004
  • Hypoxia
  • Low Oxygen
  • Ocean Dead Zones
  • Oxygen Minimum Zone
  • Dissolved Oxygen Concentration
  • Oxygen Partial Pressure
  • Limits To Aerobic Respiration
  • Limits To Marine Life
  • Chemical Stress
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics


Abstract The marked increase in occurrences of low oxygen events on continental shelves coupled with observed expansion of low oxygen regions of the ocean has drawn significant scientific and public attention. With this has come the need for the establishment of better definitions for widely used terms such as “hypoxia” and “dead zones”. Ocean chemists and physicists use concentration units such as μ molO 2 / kg for reporting since these units are independent of temperature, salinity and pressure and are required for mass balances and for numerical models of ocean transport. Much of the reporting of dead zone occurrences is in volumetric concentration units of mlO 2/l or mgO 2/l for historical reasons. And direct measurements of the physiological state of marine animals require reporting of the partial pressure of oxygen (pO 2) in matm or kPa since this provides the thermodynamic driving force for molecular transfer through tissue. This necessarily incorporates temperature and salinity terms and thus accommodates changes driven by climate warming and the influence of the very large temperature range around the world where oxygen limiting values are reported. Here we examine the various definitions used and boundaries set and place them within a common framework. We examine the large scale ocean pO 2 fields required for pairing with pCO 2 data for examination of the combined impacts of ocean acidification and global warming. The term “dead zones”, which recently has received considerable attention in both the scientific literature and the press, usually describes shallow, coastal regions of low oxygen caused either by coastal eutrophication and organic matter decomposition or by upwelling of low oxygen waters. While we make clear that bathyal low oxygen waters should not be confused with shallow-water “dead zones”, as deep water species are well adapted, we show that those waters represent a global vast reservoir of low oxygen water which can readily be entrained in upwelling waters and contribute to coastal hypoxia around the world and may be characterized identically. We examine the potential for expansion of those water masses onto continental shelves worldwide, thereby crossing limits set for many not adapted species.

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