Hypoxia describes the lack of oxygen available in lakes and other large bodies of water, both fresh and marine, preventing a vigorous, well balanced, and healthy ecology. These are known as “dead zones.” A dead zone is the result of an overgrowth of algae, which subsequently sinks to the bottom, where bacteria flourish and use up all the available oxygen to the detriment of other living things in that ecological system.
Seasonally, the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Texas turns into one of those places, and there are many others. According to reports, their numbers have grown from 49 to 176, since 1995.
Ten of the largest marine dead zones are located in the Baltic Sea, which condition brings it closer and closer to an environmental crisis that will affect all of the countries surrounding it. They are, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Sweden. Restricting the flow of fertilizers containing nitrogen and phosphates from farms into the streams, that then flow into the Baltic Sea is a primary way to help return the sea to ecological vigor.
The process that causes hypoxia is called eutrophication. A condition caused by the elevated presence of nutrients that encourage a huge algae bloom, which then slowly dies and sinks to the bottom, where bacteria then thrive and deplete the available oxygen.
Eventually, the depletion of oxygen causes a cascade of failures to the system, leading to the death of the creatures dependent upon it, and upon the variation of plant life snuffed out by the overgrowth of algae. If there is no oxygen in the water, there are no fish, turtles, snails, etc.
In the case of the Baltic Sea, the largest dead zone known, the eutrophication came as a result of history of nitrogen and phosphorus effluent from the farms in many of the countries that make up the shores of the Sea. Some of the same chemicals floated onto the lake, favored by winds, carrying atmospheric pollution.
In 2007, a meeting of the countries with a vested interest in returning the Baltic Sea to a healthy and productive ecology, formulated an elaborate strategy to initiate whatever plans were necessary to expedite achieving their goal to clean up the Baltic.
Based on measurements and data at that time, the multi-country committee known as HELCOM set out to reverse the damages done to the Baltic. The target clearance, with a return to a clean and balanced ecology is underway even now, and the results will vary according to the varied nature of the different regions surrounding it. It is a highly complex plan, involving extensive changes in each of the countries affected.
It has also been discovered that there is a large amount of airbourne nitrogen that is coming from countries outside those mentioned. That needs to be addressed as well.
There is a plan, a strategy, committees, and the best of intentions, however, the Baltic Sea will be returned to a pristine and healthy ecology, only when there is sustained cooperation from all of the individuals who manage the various segments of farming, engineering, as well as the complex assortment of political judgements that affect all the other decisions. We should all be concerned about these dead zones, and the careless disposal of those chemicals that cause them.
The Baltic Sea should be the red flag warning that brings the appropriate attention from the rest of the world, to the fundamental problem caused by excess farm fertilizer runoff.