- Oxygen-depleted ‘dead zones’ in the Baltic Sea have increased more than 10-fold since 1900, with most of the increase having happened since 1950. The Baltic Sea now has the largest dead zone in the world, mostly due to fertiliser run-off and resulting eutrophication, but oxygen depletion has also been observed in other European seas in recent decades.
- Readings of oxygen concentrations in the Baltic Sea and Greater North Sea have shown significant declines in one tenth of the reporting sites/stations since 1990. The majority of other stations in European seas did not show similar drops, but data coverage is far from comprehensive.
- Ocean acidity was relatively stable for millions of years but increased by about 30 % during the industrial era. The observed increase is nearly identical across the global ocean and throughout continental European seas, except for variations near the coast and larger increases in the northernmost European seas.
- Ocean acidification will continue in the future, with a doubling of current acidity levels possible by the end of this century under a high-emissions scenario.
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The increase in greenhouse gas emissions and the temperature of the atmosphere, and changes in ocean currents induce significant modifications of the chemical properties of the ocean water, such as its oxygen content, acidity and salinity. Such changes can have significant impacts on marine biodiversity and ecosystem productivity (EEA, 2018: European waters — Assessment of status and pressures 2018).
The dissolved oxygen level index refers to the average concentration of free oxygen present in ocean water.
Index factsheet (ETC/CCA Technical Paper): Dissolved oxygen level
The amount of dissolved oxygen in sea water affects the metabolism of marine organisms and provides information on marine ecosystem health. Reductions in oxygen content can lead to changes in the distribution of marine species, including the formation of ‘dead zones’. The primary cause of oxygen depletion is nutrient input from agricultural fertilisers, which cause eutrophication, but the effects of eutrophication are exacerbated by climate change, in particular increases in sea temperature and in water column stratification.
The index can support adaptation planning related to marine protected areas, fisheries and marine aquaculture, but can also inform required changes in agricultural activities on the surrounding land.
Past and future changes
In the Baltic Sea, oxygen concentrations in the water layer near the sea floor have decreased significantly since 1900 and oxygen-depleted zones in the Baltic Sea have increased more than 10-fold, with most of this increase happening after 1950. The Baltic Sea now has the largest dead zone in the world, due mostly to nutrient inputs from agricultural fertilisers and consequent eutrophication (EEA, 2017: Climate change, impacts and vulnerability in Europe 2016: An indicator-based report, Section 4.1.6). Oxygen depletion has also been observed in other European seas in recent decades.
Oxygen concentrations in the water layer near the sea floor have decreased at 11 % of stations in the Baltic Sea and at 9 % of stations in the Greater North Sea since 1990. The majority of other stations in European seas did not show significant trends in oxygen concentrations over this period, but data coverage is not sufficient in all regional seas.
Quantitative projections for future changes in ocean oxygen concentrations are not currently available.
Further information (EEA indicator assessment): Oxygen concentrations in European coastal and marine waters.
Chapters of the Europe's changing climate hazards report