Sept. 24, 2018 – Scientists from around the globe are signing a written declaration in an effort to inform the United Nations and its member states about the dangers of decreasing oxygen in the world’s oceans, calling on the international organization to raise global awareness about ocean deoxygenation, take immediate action to limit pollution, and limit global warming.

“People who study the oceans are aware that they are losing oxygen,” said Dr. Karin Limburg, an original signatory who is a fisheries ecologist at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. “It’s something the scientific community wants to get out in front of. And it’s one more reason we need to do something about climate change.”

The scientists signed the “Kiel Declaration on Ocean Deoxygenation” after attending a four-day conference called “Ocean Deoxygenation: Drivers and Consequences — Past – Present – Future” in Kiel, Germany, early this month. The statement is headlined, “The ocean is losing its breath,” using a title that has become an unofficial motto for Limburg and her international colleagues.

The lead organizer of the Kiel conference and primary author of the declaration is Professor Andreas Oschlies of the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, who said that the ocean is in global crisis. He said scientists, society and policymakers urgently have to respond to the increasing threat of ocean deoxygenation, which is already disrupting marine ecosystems and their role in global elemental cycles.

“Both the Paris Agreement addressing Climate Change and the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development demand conservation and sustainable use of the ocean, seas and marine resources in order to safeguard ocean ecosystems and their current and future societal benefits,” the declaration states. “These are severely threatened by ocean deoxygenation.”

The scientists list eight points they all agree on:

  • During the past 50 years, oxygen-depleted waters have expanded fourfold, with some ocean areas losing up to 40 percent of their oxygen.
  • The ongoing loss of oxygen from the ocean is a rapidly increasing threat to marine life, the ocean’s ecosystems and coastal communities.
  • Global warming affects ocean oxygen in two ways: the ocean’s capacity to hold oxygen decreases in warm waters and nutrient pollution enhances oxygen demand.
  • Deoxygenation disrupts marine ecosystems.
  • Deoxygenation can accelerate global warming.
  • Deoxygenation is predicted to worsen in the coming years.
  • Expanded monitoring is required immediately.
  • Strategies to slow and eventually reverse deoxygenation and its impacts need to be developed between science and society.

The original signatories are 34 scientists from 13 nations in North and South America, Europe and Asia. Their conference was organized by the Kiel Collaborative Research Center and the Global Ocean Oxygen Network (GO2NE). Meanwhile, more than 300 scientists from all over the world have signed the declaration.

Dr. Denise Breitburg of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and co-chair of the GO2NE working group said, “Our hope is that the Kiel Declaration will help bring this problem out of the shadows and into the forefront of public and policy discussions. The decline in oxygen in the open ocean and coastal waters fundamentally alters marine ecosystems and threatens biodiversity and sustainable fisheries, and could influence feedback between the oceans and the earth’s climate system.”

GO2NE comprises internationally prominent scientists who are engaged to provide a global and multidisciplinary view of deoxygenation. The network offers scientific advice to policy makers to counter the deoxygenation trend and preserve marine resources.  The group recently published a 40-page document, labeled “Summary for Policy Makers,” that describes the problem and its causes and effects, and lists some steps to slow and reverse deoxygenation, and minimize its effects.

Among the causes of ocean deoxygenation are the presence of sewage in the water, which feeds microbes that then consume oxygen, and nutrient pollution, which stimulates the growth of phytoplankton that, again, fuels the oxygen-consuming microbes. This is compounded by global warming, which causes oxygen decline even in the open ocean where nutrients related to human activities aren’t a problem: warmer water holds less oxygen and causes “stratification,” a process in which warmer, less-dense water rides atop colder water and thus impedes re-aeration of the deep-water layers. Scientists have identified low-oxygen “dead zones” and “oxygen minimum zones” around the world, including in the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Ocean off the northwest coast of the United States and in the Baltic and Black seas. They exist both in coastal waters and in the open ocean.

Limburg said oxygen levels are dropping faster than scientific models had predicted in some locations, indicating a need for new and better monitoring and models in support of forecasting.

The United Nations announced last year that 2021-30 will be the Decade of the Ocean for Sustainable Development. According to a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization announcement, the goal is to “mobilize the scientific community, policy-makers business, and civil society around a program of joint research and technological innovation.”

The scientists expect the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to distribute the Kiel Declaration to the participants of biodiversity and sustainability panels.

Kiel Declaration on Ocean Deoxygenation: