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It's Fall on the Coast: Summer is Here
Coast Dead Zone Dissipating, May Have Other Side Effects
scientists ready an underwater robot to explore the dead zone
off the Oregon coast
– The so-called “dead zone” off the Oregon coast
is showing signs of dissipating, after a particularly severe season
of killing off fish and other marine life with its unusually low
This dead zone
and its brand of marine mayhem was first identified in 2002, and
has recurred each summer season, after going away when fall and
winter roll in. This year it’s been bigger, badder and lasted
much longer than before.
say this event could be having some other interesting side effects
in the world of fishing, crabbing and scientific oddities like the
“glowing sand” phenomenon
that may be not so bad, even as they express concerns about the
marine ecosystem’s ability to handle such large intrusions.
But there may have been a few unusual and not thoroughly unpleasant
impacts to the coast’s tourism industry.
seen these events each year since 2002, but it’s normally
not this low in oxygen and causing this much death in the ocean
as it is this year,” said Francis Chan, a marine ecologist
with Oregon State University. “This event is much lower in
oxygen and much more severe, and it’s lasted longer.”
of sea life in the dead zone (pictures courtesy OSU)
Some edges of
this massive dead zone are showing signs of life again, with oxygen
levels slowly rising in these areas. The shallower waters about
a mile offshore have shown an improvement, but the larger, more
deadly area still sits around 12 miles from land, stretching some
70 miles from north to south. Chan said these are the boundaries
they know about, having tested waters from Cape Perpetua up to Cascade
Head, near Lincoln City.
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There have been
reports of a dead zone off the Washington coast, and Chan admits
there could be more in Oregon’s waters than scientists have
been able to find. “There have been reports of fish kills
washing up onshore in Washington,” Chan said. “But there
haven’t been any reports here. Some researchers have reported
a lot crab carcasses around the Strawberry Hill beach access, although
that’s difficult to pinpoint that to this event.”
behind the dead zone are completely normal occurrences in nature,
said Chan. They just happen to come together to create this ecological
First, the winds
that drive the ocean currents have been active in such a way as
to cause a lot of cold water, low-oxygen upwellings from the deep.
Those winds haven’t shifted to churn up the water and expose
it to air. This has kept a flow of water currents going that have
organisms like fish, invertebrates and phytoplankton die, their
decaying bodies suck more air out of the environment and add toxic
gases as well.
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A third situation
adds even further. “These upwellings are rich in nutrients
and cause large blooms of phytoplankton,” Chan said.
The result is
more bodies to decay in the area.
bit like a vicious circle in the circle of life in the deep: a self-perpetuating
set of conditions that can only go away when storms or certain wind
conditions begin churning up the sea.
One theory for
the cause of the wind directions is global warming, which keeps
the winds quiet in one direction, disabling the churning mechanism
of the ocean. Meanwhile, these conditions keep the winds in the
directions that cause the upwellings.
The deeper waters
contain less oxygen because they are further from the air. “The
ocean is in layers,” Chan said. “And the deeper you
go, the more the layers do not have contact with the air. It’s
like they’re capped, with various layers in between them and
the surface, including large amounts of phytoplankton, keeping it
all away from the atmosphere.”
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The irony is
that the dead zone may have had a couple positive side effects for
tourism on the coast. There have been reports this summer of massive
crab catches in the bays of Newport and Waldport, and many scientists
in Oregon agree that it’s likely the dead zone chased populations
of crab into areas more convenient for humans to grab them.
The wild and
weird glowing phytoplankton on the beaches this summer has been
rather spectacular and perhaps even a little more visible than usual.
Nicknamed “glowing sands,” beachgoers can see small,
bluish, green sparks in the sand at night, caused by washes of bioluminescent
diatoms called dinoflagellates.
If there are
more phytoplankton than usual, than there are greater chances to
see this unusual phenomenon. More phytoplankton is caused by more
nutrients in the water, which are brought up by these coldwater
been a very productive, rich year for phytoplankton,” Chan
There have been
anomalies in the tourism businesses because of this as well. The
dead zone may have somewhat affected the charter fishing businesses
that line the central Oregon coast. Chan said the fishing boat and
charter boat captains have expressed concern over the dead zone,
because they’ve found some areas much slower for fishing,
and others extremely hot for catches. It appears as if the fish
are running from the zone as well, congregating in certain areas
and not in others.
heard some things from the boat captains,” Chan said. “We’re
meeting with a lot of the charter businesses next week to talk about
it. But it makes sense that there would be pockets with more oxygen
where the fish and invertebrates would take refuge. “
Chan said they’ll
be comparing notes on fish populations at the meeting.