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March 30, 2004

Adventures in Journalism: The Dead Zones

The biggest problem with this explanation of the dead zones in the ocean isn't just that it's overly simple. It's wrong as well.

The main cause is excess nitrogen run-off from farm fertilizers, sewage and industrial pollutants. The nitrogen triggers blooms of microscopic algae known as phytoplankton. As the algae die and rot, they consume oxygen, thereby suffocating everything from clams and lobsters to oysters and fish.

Phytoplankton are known as the "grass of the ocean." Together with the zooplanktons they form the base of the ocean's food chain. Claiming they are the main cause of ocean dead zones is akin to blaming Kentucky rye for a cattle kill.

Phytoplanktons are plants. They're net oxygen producers as well as food, though at night they consume some of the oxygen produced during the day. Like all plants, phytoplanktons eventually die. When a phytoplankton dies, it sinks to the bottom, to be consumed by tiny animals that this article conveniently calls "decomposers."

Guess what animals breathe?

That's right, oxygen. What happens when excess nitrogen (sewage, fertilizer. Pollution, essentially) enters a particular patch of ocean, the phytoplankton population skyrockets--the "bloom" the CBS article talks about. The bloom starts to die only after all the excess nutrients (sewage, fertilizer) have been consumed.

That's right. Phytoplankton not only make oxygen, they eat pollution.

When they finally die of starvation, the phytoplankton algae drifts to the bottom, and the resultant explosion in the decomposer population is what depletes the O2 levels in the water.

That's part of what causes a dead zone, but it's not enough. Phytoplankton blooms occur naturally all the time as part of a process called upwelling, when water arising from the bottom of the sea brings nutrients to the surface. There aren't massive fish kills associated with them because the water is moving, dispersing the bloom even as it arises. To make a dead zone, one needs not only a growth in decomposers, but a column of relatively still water as well. That's why so many dead zones are found in areas like the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake bay. Both are relatively enclosed areas, where water movement can be easily restricted. A bloom reinforces this relative stability, as anyone who has ever seen an algae-covered lake can tell you.

Come up with a way to keep the water moving in areas prone to dead zones, and all the nutrients flowing into the oceans will promote the growth of sea life, rather than aiding in its destruction.

Of course, moving giant patches of water around is probably even harder than it sounds, so in the short run, we need to be cutting down on the amount of nitrogen finding its way into the ocean. To that, and the long run will take care of itself.

But....a fellow can dream, can't he?

Everyone has fried ants with a magnifying glass before, right? Or burnt one's finger with it?

Imagine a giant orbital mirror, constructed so that it can deliver a relative pinpoint of light to the earth's surface--one a mile or so wide. When a phytoplankton bloom in progress is detected, the mirror could be moved so that the "pinpoint" is focused on it. Two things happen. One, the bloom's growth is disrupted as dramatically higher temperatures within the pinpoint kill off individual organisms, reducing the exponential growth of the bloom so that the boom and crash pattern is disrupted. Two, the waters around the pinpoint begin to evaporate. Evaporation causes clouds. Enough evaporation causes thunderstorms, and thunderstorms bring wind with them, moving the water around.

Just a thought. I'm of the school of thought that thinks most of the world's problems can be solved with giant space mirrors. And yes, they could be used as weapons, too. Most things can.

Update: Always sleep on a problem. Why not just harvest the stuff? Bound to be a use for it, and it obviates the need for giant space mirrors, much as I like them.

Posted by Bigwig at March 30, 2004 10:21 PM | TrackBack
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You are good. Now why didn't you go into biology?

Posted by: Yomama at March 31, 2004 10:48 AM

Why not just harvest the stuff?

An interesting suggestion. First, that assumes that the disruption caused by the harvesting is less than the disruption caused by the phytoplankton blooms themselves. Second, I didn't know you were a supply-sider i.e. Say's Law "Supply creates demand". I'm not so sure. My experience has been that people only go after what they can actually sell rather than go after it and hope they can sell it.

Posted by: Dave Schuler at April 2, 2004 10:32 AM

Dave Schuler - Of course you can sell it, the problem is that you're looking at the wrong it. If you don't want a dead zone, you can pay for their prevention. There are at least two money sources, food from the plankton (probably a decent animal feed) and the ecological and tourist value of no fish kills.

On the subject of innovative fixes, I like the space mirrors but think that energy transmission into the ocean is much more likely to come from space solar power stations aiming their power beamers for a time to create a sufficient current to break up the dead zone. Such power stations are being developed by NASA and should start flying in a couple of decades.

Posted by: TM Lutas at April 2, 2004 12:20 PM

Harvest it, sure.  The ideal way would be to use one of Nature's favorite harvesters, anchovies (any other plankton-feeding fish would do).  So long as you could manage the nutrient flows so that the algal growth never gets too far beyond the ability of the fish to eat it, the dead zone is averted.

Of course, if we could manage things that well the problem would have already taken care of itself.

I'm not sure that a space mirror is the most useful tool for the job, though.  What you want is something to aerate or stir the water.  Winds have a way of doing this, and it occurs to me that if you created a "captive thunderstorm" in a convection tower a la Leon Billig's concept written up in Analog you would certainly get a stirring effect from the incoming air.  Surface water would be pulled in, cooled and salinated slightly from evaporation, and then probably pushed downward as more water was drawn in above it.  This flow would create currents in the region so long as the convection flow was active.

A convection tower would have other benefits, but I'll let you scare up the article and do the numbers for yourself.

Posted by: Engineer-Poet at April 2, 2004 09:19 PM

That Analog link was supposed to go to - dunno what I messed up.

Posted by: Engineer-Poet at April 2, 2004 09:24 PM
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