OSU leading research on dead zone mystery
The 'dead zone' effect off the Oregon Coast has potentially unsettling consequences
Published: Wednesday, October 4, 2006
Updated: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 21:07
For the fifth year in a row, a mysterious dead zone off the Oregon coast is smothering thousands of victims to death. In what is being called a rare phenomenon, patches of the sea shelf usually plentiful with life have become expansive graveyards, host to only the rotting corpses of crabs and sea worms.
This devastation has been occurring since the dead zone was first discovered in 2002 by researchers at OSU's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Science.
Naturally caused by ocean currents bringing oxygen-depleted waters to the coast, the dead zone deprives local sea animals of oxygen and effectively drowns them, said OSU Assistant Professor and Researcher Francis Chan.
This hypoxia can also be caused by eutrophication, a process in which fertilizers and nutrient-rich waters flowing into the ocean feed plankton. The plankton, in turn, die and decompose, according to an OSU press release.
Bacteria involved in the plankton's decomposition thrive and quickly exhaust the water's oxygen supply.
The College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Science is leading the Oregon coast's research on dead zones. But even with access to two ships and a plethora of high-tech equipment, progress is slow.
"The big question at hand is 'what are the long term effects of this,'" said Chan, who spent most of last summer measuring the properties of the dead zone.
Although it is naturally occurring, the dead zone has the potential to be very harmful to the ecosystem. Repeated occurrences could take their toll.
"Think of it as a heat wave," Chan said. "Once in a while it isn't so bad, but year after year of 110-degree weather would be dangerous."
However, the other possible outcome of this carnage may be massive amounts of richly fertilized seabed, causing a booming flourish of life, Chan said, adding that fish and crab populations could bounce back in abundance.
Chan said that while the final results of dead zone hypoxia may not be known, it is safe to say that people are not at risk. The seafood supply should not suffer either.