Oregon's Dead Zone

Article excerpt

Byline: The Register-Guard

It now stretches from Florence to Lincoln City in a band as wide as 30 miles, this dead zone that has wiped out nearly all fish and invertebrates and has alarmed researchers worldwide.

While still a matter of intensive study, it's abundantly clear that Oregon's dead zone and others like it elsewhere reflect the increasingly dire state of the world's oceans. Unless decisive action is taken to address problems including climate change, overfishing, pollution and coastal development, the size and number of dead zones will continue to grow.

So far, the federal government has responded with the speed and aggressiveness of a slumbering manatee. Two years ago, a presidentially appointed commission called on the Bush administration and Congress to make sweeping changes in the nation's ocean policy and governance. Yet the panel's recommendations have largely been ignored, and funding is being cut, not expanded, for vitally ocean research.

A team of Oregon State University scientists made an unnerving discovery this week as they studied Oregon's dead zone, which first appeared five years ago and has grown to the size of Rhode Island. Oxygen readings have dropped to the lowest levels recorded in 40 years - as low as the most depleted sections of a notorious and much larger dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Oregon's dead zone is nearing a state of anoxia, which means there is no oxygen in the water.

Scientists say the dead zone was created by blooms of phytoplankton, tiny plants that die and sink to the ocean floor. The phytoplankton are then eaten by bacteria, which consume oxygen in the water.

Why the explosion in phytoplankton off the Oregon Coast? Marine ecologists believe it's been triggered by wild swings in the timing and duration of winds that cause roll-overs of the water column, a process known as upwelling. Those swings are consistent with climatic changes brought about by global warming.

Other dead zones appear to have different causes. …