By: April Carson
The movement of continents, which was previously overlooked, helps to fill Earth's seas with life-supporting oxygen. Continental motion may eventually have the opposite effect and exterminate most deep ocean species.
The deep ocean is one of the largest and most important ecosystems on Earth. It covers over two-thirds of our planet’s surface and is home to a vast array of unique species.
"Though continental drift seems to take place slowly, over time it can have drastic effects," said Andy Ridgwell, University of California, Riverside geologist. Ridg well is co-author of a new study on forces affecting oceanic oxygen. "For example, if the ocean is 'primed,' even a small event could trigger widespread death of marine life."
Ridgwell and collaborators used computer simulations to show that the deep ocean is slowly becoming oxygen-depleted. The depletion is caused by a combination of two processes. First, as ocean plates move around, they carry with them water of different depths.
As the water nears the north or south pole, it becomes colder and denser, and then sinks. When the water drops, it pulls oxygen from the atmosphere down to the seabed.
A return flow, in the end, returns nutrients released by sunken organic matter to the ocean's surface, fueling plankton growth. Today's seas contain an incredible range of fish and other creatures that are sustained by both continual oxygen supply to lower levels and organic material produced at the surface.
Complex computer models were used to investigate how the locations of continental plates affect ocean circulation. The researchers found that this circulation can end quite suddenly and that it is affected by the location of continents.
Ridgwell stated that many millions of years ago, not long after animal life in the ocean arose, the global ocean circulation seemed to occasionally shut down. He continued on by saying that they were not expecting to find evidence suggesting that continents moving could result in surface waters and oxygen stopping its descent; this discovery may provide new insight into how life evolved on Earth.
Models that have previously been employed to study the evolution of marine oxygen over the last 540 million years were rather basic, and they didn't take into account ocean circulation. In these simulations, anoxia in the ocean — times when oceanic oxygen decreased — was equated with a drop in global oxygen levels.
First author of the study, Alexandre Pohl, who is also a former UCR paleoclimate modeler said that “scientists previously assumed that changing oxygen levels in the ocean mostly reflected similar fluctuations in the atmosphere.” Pohl is now located at Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté in France.
This is the first study to use a model in which the ocean was represented by three dimensions as well as accounted for oceanic currents. The findings concluded that a collapse in global water circulation would cause oxygen levels to differ greatly between upper and lower depths.
The seafloor was entirely devoid of oxygen for many tens of millions of years, with the exception being shallow areas near coastlines. This continued until approximately 440 million years ago during the start of the Silurian period.
“Circulation collapse would have been a death sentence for anything that couldn't swim closer to the surface and the yet-present life-giving oxygen in the air,” Ridgwell added. Strange-looking fish, enormous worms, crabs, and squids are among the creatures of the deep.
The study does not address the question of whether or when Earth may experience a similar occurrence in the future. It is difficult to determine when a collapse will occur, and what might trigger it, but current climate models indicate that increasing global warming will weaken ocean circulation and some predict an eventual breakdown of the branch of circulation that begins in the North Atlantic. If and when that happens, the deep sea will become a very different place.
“As the world warms, we may see an acceleration of these trends,” said Ridgwell.
“The sleeping giant might not be so dormant in future centuries. It is likely that a warmer world will lead to more anoxic deep waters and less life in the abyss.”
Ridgwell stated that a mass extinction event cannot be predicted with the current level of climate model resolution. Although, he went on to say that there are concerns about water circulation in the North Atlantic and evidence points to declining rates of water flow to depth.
In reality, an exceptionally hot summer or the degradation of a cliff may set off a chain of events that throws modern life into upheaval. Ridgwell added, in theory, a rogue process could initiate this chain reaction.
Ridgwell said that many people believe that the surface of the ocean is where all the action occurs, but in actuality, animals in darker depths rely on oxygen from shelves and currents below.
"While the ocean provides a place for life to grow, it can also take away that life. There is nothing stopping this from happening as long as continental plates keep moving."
The team of researchers based at the University of California, Riverside described their discovery in the journal Nature.
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
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