Pacific Northwest Low-Oxygen Events: ‘Tipping Point’ Linked to Warming?

Reporters in the Pacific Northwest might find some good stories in digging into a Science magazine study by Jane Lubchenco, Oregon State University’s well-known marine biology professor.

The study reports that stronger and more persistent winds linked to climate change and a warmer planet are making “unprecedented” low-oxygen, or hypoxic, events off the coast “more likely to be the rule rather than the exception.”

“In this part of the marine environment, we may have crossed a tipping point,” Lubchenco said in a statement promoting the report. “Levels of oxygen in the summertime have suddenly become much lower than levels in the previous 50 years, and 2006 broke ‘all records’ with previously unseen anoxic (lacking oxygen altogether) areas.

“People keep asking us, ‘Is this situation really all that different or not’” Lubchenco said. “Now we have the answer to that question, and it’s an unequivocal yes.”

Lubchenco and her fellow researchers cautioned that “it’s less certain why this is happening, but the events are completely consistent with global climate change.”

“There have always been unusual weather events, such as hurricanes, droughts, and changes in wind patterns,” physical oceanography professor Jack Barth said. “So it’s difficult to prove that any one event is caused by global warming. Having said that, we expect global warming to generally cause stronger and more persistent winds,” which contribute to the hypoxia problem by increasing production of plankton and holding low-oxygen water on the continental shelf for longer periods of time. Get information on the study at http://www.piscoweb.org/outreach/topics/hypoxia or contact Barth by e-mail or phone (541-737-1607).

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