Nutrient pollution is caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the air and water. Nitrogen and phosphorus are nutrients that are natural parts of aquatic ecosystems. Nitrogen is also the most abundant element in the air we breathe. Nitrogen and phosphorus support the growth of algae and aquatic plants, which provide food and habitat for fish, shellfish and smaller organisms that live in water. But when too much nitrogen and phosphorus enter the environment - usually from a wide range of human activities - the air and water can become polluted. Nutrient pollution has impacted many streams, rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters for the past several decades, resulting in serious environmental and human health issues, and impacting the economy.
Chronic stress from lack of oxygen can make aquatic organisms more vulnerable to disease, pollution, or predation. Low oxygen can also result in reduced habitat for some species. Aquatic species may escape, acclimate, adapt, or die with exposure.
Estuaries around the world including Puget Sound perform an amazing feat of continuous water mixing called estuarine exchange flow.
Like the air we breathe, oxygen that is dissolved in the water is critical for aquatic life. When dissolved oxygen is low, fish and other aquatic organisms may not be able to survive.
Nitrogen is a chemical element that is essential for the growth of all life on earth. But too much nitrogen can lead to low dissolved oxygen and other problems such as toxic algal blooms that can harm or kill aquatic organisms.
The following fact sheet provides an overview of low oxygen conditions in Puget Sound. It addresses some of the related causes and concerns that have been identified by scientists in the region. The overview was prepared in conjunction with a series of workshops on hypoxia and nutrient pollution presented by the University of Washington Puget Sound Institute.
In many parts of Puget Sound, hypoxic waters are thought to be at least in part due to overgrowth of microscopic algae, which is triggered by excess nitrogen. That means it’s important to understand the dynamics of primary productivity – the rate at which those microscopic algae, known as phytoplankton, produce organic matter through photosynthesis and in this way provide the base of the food web. Researchers are investigating different types of phytoplankton and rates of primary productivity throughout the Salish Sea, and seeking to understand how primary productivity is likely to change as climate change alters patterns of coastal upwelling and freshwater flow into the Sound.
How do marine sediments affect oxygen and nutrient levels in the water?
The search goes on for a set of definitions and thresholds to represent low-oxygen concentrations that threaten various aquatic creatures. Over the years, ecologists have relocated, reshaped and revised the word “hypoxia” to describe these conditions. In part four of our series "Oxygen for life" we look at how scientists determine whether oxygen levels are low enough to be considered harmful to sea life.
Scientists are reporting a decline in oxygen-rich waters throughout the world. Causes for the decline vary from place to place but may involve climate change and increasing discharges of tainted water. In Puget Sound, low oxygen levels can occur naturally or due to eutrophication from human-caused pollution. In this five-part series, we describe the critical nature of oxygen to Puget Sound sea life. Scientists are finding that changes in oxygen levels can lead to physiological adjustments, shifts in predator-prey relationships and other repercussions throughout the food web.
As observed in Hood Canal, low-oxygen conditions can upend the lives of Dungeness crabs trying to stay alive. Levels of dissolved oxygen can alter predator-prey relationships for a multitude of species, affecting populations throughout the food web. Part two of our series "Oxygen for life" examines a crab case study.
In time, lower dissolved oxygen worsened by climate change could increase the abundance of rare species in Puget Sound while putting populations of more common species into a tailspin. Part three of our series "Oxygen for life" looks at how warmer waters will gradually make it harder for many sea creatures to breathe.
The Washington State Department of Ecology has reached one hundred Eyes Over Puget Sound reports. Since 2011, Ecology has provided aerial observations and documented visible features at the surface of Puget Sound from a floatplane. This unique perspective from the air featured Puget Sound's natural beauty, its oceanographic complexity, and its ecological treasures. It also raised awareness of the challenges that the water body is facing today. Our image-rich documentation of known eutrophication indicators ranges from algal and Noctiluca blooms to macroalgae, jellyfish, and human stressors. It provides a visually captivating time-capsule of issues facing Puget Sound. The report is rich in educational and outreach material, inspired numerous news reports, and drew academic and public attention during the period of marine heat wave of the north Pacific, The Blob.
How do excess nutrients trigger low oxygen conditions in Puget Sound and what do those conditions mean for the species that live here?
Diverse communities of microscopic organisms called phytoplankton make up the base of the aquatic food web. In that role, they are essential to the tiny animals that eat them, but phytoplankton are not dependent on others. Thanks to chlorophyl, these tiny organisms can generate their own energy from nutrients and sunlight. Despite their critical importance to a great diversity of sea life in Puget Sound, phytoplankton can also contribute to low-oxygen conditions, and some can be harmful in other ways.
In a new series we are calling Ask a Scientist we interview local researchers to get their thoughts on some of the important but lesser-known scientific facts about the Puget Sound ecosystem. Today, we speak with University of Washington oceanographer Parker MacCready about Puget Sound’s “underwater Amazon” and why it has profound implications for Puget Sound science and policy. It all begins, he says, with the mixing of fresh and salt water and something called the estuarine exchange flow.
The Salish Sea Model is a computer model used to predict spatial and temporal patterns related to water circulation in the Salish Sea. It was developed at the United States Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency. It is housed at the University of Washington Center for Urban Waters which is affiliated with the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.
Scientists are using computer models to address complex issues in the Salish Sea like the rise of harmful algal blooms and the movement of toxic PCBs. LiveOcean, Atlantis and the Salish Sea Model are three systems that are changing the game for ecologists and other researchers.
A 2019 paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans outlines how the Salish Sea Model describes the impacts of climate change, sea level rise and nutrient loads on the region's nearshore environment.
The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 was designed as a logical step-by-step approach to clean up the nation's waterways. Most people acknowledge that the law has been effective in reducing pollution, but industrial and environment groups tend to be on opposite sides when discussing whether regulations and permits adequately protect water quality. These 10 elements of the Clean Water Act (CWA) focus on how the law applies to Puget Sound.
As the region's population grows, scientists say we can expect to see increasing amounts of nitrogen and other elements flowing into Puget Sound. Known as “nutrients” these elements are naturally occurring and even necessary for life, but officials worry that nutrients from wastewater and other human sources are tipping the balance. That could mean big problems for fish and other marine life, gradually depleting the water of oxygen and altering the food web.
A regional sewage-treatment system in Thurston County has helped contain low-oxygen problems in Budd Inlet as the population continues to grow. The system cleans up some of the effluent for replenishing groundwater supplies.
High amounts of elements such as nitrogen can cause blooms of phytoplankton that sometimes trigger perturbations throughout the food web. This occurs most often in the spring and summer after the long, dark, cloudy days of winter begin to fade.
The amount of oxygen in the Salish Sea is dependent on water circulation which distributes chemical elements such as nitrogen through the system.
Under the federal Clean Water Act, states are required to assess the quality of their surface waters and compile a list of polluted water bodies. The law mandates cleanup plans to address pollution and other water-quality problems. This article describes how this process works in Washington state for dissolved oxygen.
The Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program (PSEMP) is an independent program established by state and federal statute to monitor environmental conditions in Puget Sound.
Formerly known as “Red Tide”, harmful algal blooms are a health concern for both wildlife and humans. The following is a brief review of some of these algae and their effects.
An algal bloom is a rapid increase or accumulation in the population of algae in a water system. While most are innocuous, there are a small number of algae species that produce harmful toxins to humans and animals.
Decaying organic matter plays an important role in marine ecosystems.
This study compared recent and historical data to determine the presence of any significant changes in nutrient and oxygen concentrations subsequent to METRO discharge, examined seasonal cycles in water properties, and examined the flux of nutrients within the study area.
Hypoxia, defined as dissolved oxygen (DO) concentrations less than 2 mg / L, has become widespread throughout estuaries and semi-enclosed seas throughout the world (Diaz 2001).
An independent review conducted by the Puget Sound Institute (PSI) is featured in findings by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington State Department of Ecology that there is currently “no compelling evidence” that humans are the cause for recent trends in declines in dissolved oxygen in Hood Canal.