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Karen Telleen-Lawton: Ocean Dead Zones and Climate Change

By | Published on 03/12/2012


The Pacific Northwest's dead zone, which might be an irreversible result of climate change, is heading south and has already reached California

Santa Barbarans love to peer out over the ocean. It’s a live masterpiece — the finest in landscape painting dovetailing the best of cinematic magic. It seems so vast as to be unfazed by human actions.

Yet we’ve impacted the sea for decades. Yesteryear’s pollution issues, such as DDT, seem miniscule compared with today’s problems. There are the Garbage Patches, those masses of microscopic plastics and other debris hundreds of miles long that circle in the major seas. And now there are dead zones.

Dead zones have been a phenomenon for decades in some areas. Most of them are the result of pollution, such as the Gulf of Mexico zone stretching thousands of square miles. But the recurring dead zone off the coast of Oregon and Washington is of more mysterious origin. That zone, which has recurred every summer since 2002, may be an irreversible result of climate change.

Ocean dead zones are areas without sufficient oxygen to support marine life. Spikes in algae growth trigger these algal blooms. As the algae die, bacteria feeding on them use up the water’s oxygen content in the process. Marine animals suffocate if they can’t escape the area.

There are more than 400 of these zones around the world. The number is doubling each decade, according to the National Science Foundation.

The dead zone in the Pacific Northwest has the same disastrous look. The seafloor is piled with crab skeletons, dead fish and other marine life smothered under a white mat of bacteria. Some areas are barren landscapes where there should be riches of Dungeness crab and rockfish.

Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University, couldn’t believe her eyes at first.

“It was so overwhelming and depressing,” she said. “It appeared that everything that couldn’t swim or scuttle away had died.”

Curiously, the ocean off the Northwest coast is relatively unaffected with polluted river runoff. The plankton blooms had to come from another source. Researchers hypothesized that a change had occurred in the natural flushing mechanism of the ocean.

Lubchenco and other ecologists believe that the phenomenon appears to be a symptom of global warming. Evolving wind conditions most likely brought on by a changing climate may be pushing the algae into huge marine gyres that overwhelm the dilutive power of the ocean.

Jack Barth, professor of physical oceanography at OSU, concurs: “I really think we’re in a new pattern, a new rhythm, offshore now. And I would expect [the low-oxygen zone] to show up every year now.”

Although scientists continue to amass data and examine alternatives, signs point to the stronger winds associated with a warming planet.

Most of the marine dead zones can be improved as pollution reaching the ocean is reduced. The Black Sea used to be the world’s largest marine dead zone. It was reversed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, because farmers could no longer afford fertilizer.

But the Northwest’s dead zone has no such “easy” solution. The good news is we’ve gotten past arguing about whether climate change is happening. The bad news is, while we’re squabbling over whether climate change is human-caused or not, the window of opportunity is closing. Some decisions we make now can ameliorate the situation for the future, but other changes already set in motion are now beyond our control.

Stop a change in the wind pattern from happening? That would take some heavenly engineering. The Northwest’s dead zone is stretching south and has now become our dead zone. In the summer of 2006, it reached the California state line. But no worries — it is still hundreds of miles from the Santa Barbara coast.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor ( and a freelance writer (


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» wrote on 03/14/12 @ 04:30 PM

SB Common Sense, climate is changing, in fact my biggest argument with the AGW religion is that climates are ALWAYS changing, so using climate change as a scare tactic is disingenuous. As for warming, yes we are in a warming cycle (since the last ice age) and will continue until the next cooling cycle begins. We may have stopped warming for now but we hardly know why. The biggest counterpoint to global warming is our interactive biosphere which causes all these grant trolling intellectuals (thanks Menchar) trying to rig models to show how bad humans are, ulcers.

The bottom line is we are not doing good science and need to do better. I am amazed at how many engineers, scientists and researchers are out right lying, or misrepresenting data to prop up this idiotic religion.  When ever you call them on the planet being much warmer and with 4 to 5 times the current CO2 levels in the past with far greater abundance of life then they come back with, “well it’s the rate of change”. Bull hockey, if our planet demonstrates anything more clearly it’s the ability to take shock and recover. No not all species of life do. And thank God for that because if the dinosaurs had been able to take the last shock 65 million years ago we would not be here. And that shock makes our puny insignificant pollution and CO2 contributions look like indiscernible noise.

The AGW religion is a not a lie on its face but a lie of intent and its intent is to kill capitalism and usher in global socialism. The progenitors of this religion have all but said so. Evangelicals like Karen need to know this and understand what is at stake.

» wrote on 03/14/12 @ 03:04 PM

AGW is a religion.  Al Gore is the pope, grant-trolling intellectuals are the clergy, and people like the author of this piece are the evangelists.  Pollution is real, overfishing is real, but marine dead zones are due to AGW?  Really?

» wrote on 03/13/12 @ 07:49 AM

The author acts like she has scientific proof to corroborate her thinly disguised left-wing political diatribe. What would she like us to do: shut down all industry in Ca. and have us live off the land using bows and arrows. As a fee-only financial advisor, I am sure she has the expertise to tell us with certainty the window of opportunity is closing and other changes are now beyond our control. Maybe she is trying to sell property casualty insurance to prepare us financially for the eventual armageddon.

» wrote on 03/12/12 @ 10:43 PM

The good news is we’ve gotten past whether climate change is happening?
Perhaps the bad news for people who make a living scaring people about global warming frying the planet is that according to the UAH satellite data, the earth is the same temperature as it was in 1979. Given that the earth isn’t warming now, how do we explain all these evil effects of global warming the past 30 years.  Trying to blame dead zones, droughts, floods, snow storms, huricanes, Europes coldest winter in 40 years, etc., on global warming when the earth hasn’t warmed in over 30 years is worse than research welfare. Go look at the feb. 2012 UAH satellite temperature data. Exactly the same global temperature as 1979. The satellite data is uncorrupted by James Hansen’s minions adding fudge ffactors to the land GISS temp.  data sets. So, golly gee Forest Gump, how can we be having all these GW related effects, if WE AIN’T BEEN WARMING the last 30 years? If the reader wants to verify the latest UAH satellite temp. data, just google UAH temperature- then you don’t need to take my or the authors assertion- you can verify for yourself the earth ain’t any warmer than it was in 1979. Blaming every planetary event on GW / CC is just being intellectually flabby.

» wrote on 03/12/12 @ 10:34 PM

Karen, the planet is warming and the climate is changing, there is no doubt about that. But how it effects ocean ecosystems may have more to do with our disastrous fishing policies (and by that I mean of other countries like Russia and Japan) than wind patterns.

We may not be able to do anything about these dead zones. It may be that as the climates in the polar regions warm, thawing permafrost and releasing 10 times the CO2 we humans produce, that CO2 induced acidosis may exacerbate the problem or kill enough bacteria to actually stop the problem. We simply do not know at this point, but we should double our efforts to find out.

However, it should be done objectively and without the misanthropic prejudice prevalent in the AGW religion. We need now more than ever to practice good science not hysteria.