LOS ANGELES, June 17 (Xinhua) -- The size of low-oxygen zones created by respiring bacteria is extremely sensitive to changes in depth caused by oscillations in climate, thus posing a distant threat to marine life, a new study suggests.
"The growth of low-oxygen regions is cause for concern because of the detrimental effects on marine populations -- entire ecosystems can die off when marine life cannot escape the low- oxygen water," said lead researcher Curtis Deutsch, assistant professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at University of California, Los Angeles.
"There are widespread areas of the ocean where marine life has had to flee or develop very peculiar adaptations to survive in low- oxygen conditions," Deutsch said in the study to be published in an upcoming print edition of the journal Science.
A team led byDeutsch used a specialized computer simulation to demonstrate for the first time that fluctuations in climate can drastically affect the habitability of marine ecosystems.
The study also showed that in addition to consuming oxygen, marine bacteria are causing the depletion of nitrogen, an essential nutrient necessary for the survival of most types of algae.
"We found there is a mechanism that connects climate and its effect on oxygen to the removal of nitrogen from the ocean," Deutsch said. "Our climate acts to change the total amount of nutrients in the ocean over the timescale of decades."
Low-oxygen zones are created by bacteria living in the deeper layers of the ocean that consume oxygen by feeding on dead algae that settle from the surface. Just as mountain climbers might feel adverse effects at high altitudes from a lack of air, marine animals that require oxygen to breathe find it difficult or impossible to live in these oxygen-depleted environments, Deutsch said.
Sea surface temperatures vary over the course of decades through a climate pattern called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, during which small changes in depth occur for existing low-oxygen regions, Deutsch said. Low-oxygen regions that rise to warmer, shallower waters expand as bacteria become more active; regions that sink to colder, deeper waters shrink as the bacteria become more sluggish, as if placed in a refrigerator.
"We have shown for the first time that these low-oxygen regions are intrinsically very sensitive to small changes in climate," Deutsch said in remarks published Friday by the American Association for the Advancement of Science on its website. "That is what makes the growth and shrinkage of these low-oxygen regions so dramatic."
Molecular oxygen from the atmosphere dissolves in sea water at the surface and is transported to deeper levels by ocean circulation currents, where it is consumed by bacteria, Deutsch said.
"The oxygen consumed by bacteria within the deeper layers of the ocean is replaced by water circulating through the ocean," he said. "The water is constantly stirring itself up, allowing the deeper parts to occasionally take a breath from the atmosphere."
A lack of oxygen is not the only thing fish and other marine life must contend with, according to Deutsch. When oxygen is very low, the bacteria will begin to consume nitrogen, one of the most important nutrients that sustain marine life.
"Almost all algae, the very base of the food chain, use nitrogen to stay alive," Deutsch said. "As these low-oxygen regions expand and contract, the amount of nutrients available to keep the algae alive at the surface of the ocean goes up and down. "
Understanding the causes of oxygen and nitrogen depletion in the ocean is important for determining the effect on fisheries and fish populations, he said.