Friday, January 18, 2013

IOC/UNESCO: Addressing Nutrient Over-Enrichment

I recently had the pleasure of spending the New Year in the Pacific Northwest.  During my time there, I traveled along the Pacific coast just south of the Canadian border.  In a region renowned for natural beauty, the rocky shores didn’t disappoint.  Mile after mile of conifers edged waters that looked cold, calm, and clear.

It’s hard to imagine that waters like these could be anything but healthy.  But marine ecologist Dr. Joan Kleypas of the National Center for Atmospheric Research notes that changing CO2 levels are already impacting the shellfish industry in the Pacific Northwest.  “This is not a problem in the far distant future,” Kleypas warns.  “This is a problem now.”

In addition to rising CO2 levels, marine environments at large have seen substantial increases in nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen.  This uptick in nutrients can be traced in part to human activities such as food production, fossil fuel burning, and wastewater generation from people and industries alike.   In coastal waters, skyrocketing levels of nutrients are leading to ecosystem responses like eutrophication – think dense blooms of phytoplankton – and the ensuing chaos of depleted oxygen levels, i.e., hypoxia.  These changes in the tiny and unseen end in visible damage; the resulting low-oxygen “dead zones” cannot support most marine life.  Five hundred of these hypoxic dead zones have been identified globally already.  Although the world’s oceans are vast, the collective dead zones already cover a total global surface area roughly the size of the United Kingdom.  From sea-grasses to fish, marine ecosystems lose their overall resilience, and human activities that rely on coastal and marine health – fishing, tourism, etc. – suffer as well. 

In order to protect coastal areas, scientific partners have been working to address the root causes of this nutrient over-enrichment.  Earlier this month, an examination of nutrient/ecosystem dynamics was published in Biogeosciences, an interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union.  The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC/UNESCO) was an executing partner for this project, coordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).  The paper may be found here.

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