EarthWord: Hypoxia

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Hypoxia sounds as bad as it is. It refers to an environment that is too low on oxygen to sustain most aerobic life, particularly an aquatic environment. Hypoxia is most problematic when it happens where oxygen is normally plentiful, because most living organisms require oxygen to continue living.

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Satellite image of the Gulf of Mexico and coastline, Gulf Hypoxic Zone
A satellite image of the Gulf of Mexico and coastline, where much of the Gulf Hypoxic Zone occurs. 

Definition:

  • Hypoxia sounds as bad as it is. It refers to an environment that is too low on oxygen to sustain most aerobic life, particularly an aquatic environment. Hypoxia is most problematic when it happens where oxygen is normally plentiful, because most living organisms require oxygen to continue living.

Etymology:

  • Made up of the Greek prefix “hypo-” meaning “under” in front of oxygen.

Use/Significance in the Earth Science Community:

  • Probably the most famous examples of hypoxia are the zones near rivers where industrial and agricultural waste fuel an explosive growth of algae. When the algae die, the bacteria that eat the decomposing algae suck up most of the oxygen in the water, leaving nothing for the fish and other organisms that normally live there. This can lead to either large fish kills or even ecological deserts as those living things that can leave do.

USGS Use:

  • USGS studies both hypoxic zones and the conditions that cause to their formation. A significant project along those lines is the tracking of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico.  USGS contributes its information to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual forecasting of the Dead Zone, the area of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay.

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