» A breathless ocean: What we know about ocean deoxygenation
05.06.2018 - Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission

A breathless ocean: What we know about ocean deoxygenation

Denise Breitburg (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center)

Leading researchers from more than 50 countries are meeting this week to share the latest science concerning climate change impacts on ocean ecosystems at the 4th International Symposium on the Effects of Climate Change on the World’s Oceans, ECCWO (Washington D.C., USA, 4-8 June).

Thanks to a growing body of science, exciting innovations and discoveries, we now have a greater understanding of our planet’s climate system – but how do we turn decision-relevant knowledge into concrete steps toward delivering the ocean we need for the future we want?

This series of interviews invites you to dive into the Symposium’s major topics, through the eyes of women that have dedicated their lives to ocean science. Their insights offer us a warning about just how much is at stake when it comes to the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean in a changing climate, but they also highlight how the scientific community can play a significant role in bridging the gap between knowledge and action.

Dr. Denise Breitburg, Senior Scientist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (USA) and co-chair of the IOC-UNESCO Global Ocean Oxygen Network (GO2NE), explores the implications of oxygen decline in the ocean. Through GO2NE, she led an international review of the causes, consequences and solutions to low oxygen worldwide, whose conclusions were published by Science magazine.

Could you briefly explain what ocean deoxygenation is?

Healthy marine ecosystems require oxygen. Animals need oxygen to grow, reproduce and survive. But oxygen is declining in the open ocean and coastal waters because of increasing global temperatures and excess nutrients. This problem does not occur in isolation – waters are warming and acidifying, food webs are changed by fishing and habitat can be degraded by plastics and other pollutants. Understanding the causes and consequences of declining oxygen, alone and in combination with other stressors, can help us better protect these important ecosystems.

How can understanding oxygen decline in the ocean help benefit society?

Understanding oxygen decline can help us improve the sustainability of fisheries and food security for people dependent on fish and shellfish for their protein intake and livelihoods. Stemming and reversing oxygen decline may also protect other vital ecosystem services, such as nutrient cycling, that oceans and coastal waters provide, and reduce the danger of feedbacks onto the climate system that could exacerbate global warming.

Starting in January 2021, the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development will mobilize resources and knowledge toward building a healthier, sustainable ocean. What is your vision for the Decade?

The Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development will help researchers from around the world work together to address scientific challenges such as ocean oxygen decline. Because the Decade will highlight the importance of ocean research, it will also help researchers work with policy makers and resource managers to ensure that policy and regulations are based on a firm scientific foundation.

How can the IOC-UNESCO Global Ocean Oxygen Network (GO2NE) contribute to the Science Plan for the Decade?

The IOC-UNESCO Global Ocean Oxygen Network (GO2NE) is composed of scientists from many nations with expertise ranging from physical oceanography to fisheries. Our goals are to help:

  • Integrate the disparate research efforts on oxygen decline in the open ocean and coastal waters and offer a global and multidisciplinary view of the problem;
  • Facilitate communication with established networks, observation systems, IOC Member States, stakeholders and policymakers in order to stimulate awareness of oxygen decline;
  • Promote scientific development and cooperation and identify emergent fields of research;
  • Increase research capacity and knowledge transfer.

GO2NE and its members will continue to be actively engaged in providing information on declining oxygen in the ocean and coastal waters as part of the Sustainable Development Goal 14 process. We have initiated a biennial international scientific conference on oxygen decline to bring researchers together to work on the issue, who will then help train the next generation of researchers and continue to help find solutions to mitigate oxygen decline and its effects. I am excited to contribute to the Science Plan for the Decade as a member and co-chair of GO2NE.


UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) has co-organized this quadrennial international symposium since 2008 in collaboration with the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), the North Pacific Marine Science Organization (PICES), and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Follow all ECCWO news on Twitter at @ECCWO!

For more information, please contact:

Salvatore Arico (s.arico(at)unesco.org)

Denise Breitburg (breitburgd(at)si.edu)

Or visit:

ECCWO Symposium website

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