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The Dark Side of Upwelling: It’s getting harder and harder to breathe off the Oregon coast

By Rachel Kaplan, PhD candidate


The depths of the productive coastal Oregon ecosystem have long held a mystery – an increasing paucity in the concentration of dissolved oxygen at depth. When dissolved oxygen concentrations dips low enough, the condition “hypoxia” can alter biogeochemical cycling in the ocean environment and threaten marine life. Essentially, organisms can’t get enough oxygen from the water, forcing them to try to escape to more favorable waters, stay and change their behavior, or suffer the consequences and potentially suffocate.


Recent work has illuminated the cause of this mysterious rise in hypoxic waters: an increase in the wind-driven oceanographic process of upwelling (Barth et al., 2024). The seasonal upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich waters underlies the incredible productivity of the Oregon coast, but its dark twin is hypoxia: when organic material in the upper layer of the water column sinks, microbial respiration processes consume dissolved oxygen in the surrounding water. In addition, the deep waters brought to the surface by upwelling are depleted in oxygen compared to the aerated surface waters. These effects combine to form an oxygen-poor water layer over the continental shelf, which typically lasts from May until October in the Northern California Current (NCC) region. The spatial extent of this layer is highly variable – hypoxic bottom waters cover 10% of the shelf in some years and up to 62% in others, presenting challenging conditions for life occupying the Oregon shelf (Peterson et al., 2013).


Figure 1. An article in The Oregonian from 2004 documents research on a hypoxia-driven “dead zone” off the Oregon coast.

While effects of hypoxia on benthic communities and some fish species are well-documented, is unclear how increasing levels of hypoxia off Oregon may impact highly mobile, migratory organisms like whales. A primary pathway is likely through their prey – particularly species that occupy hypoxic regions and depths, like the zooplankton krill. Over the continental shelf and slope, which are important krill habitat, seasonally hypoxic waters tend to extend from about 150 meters depth to the bottom. The vertical center of krill distribution in the NCC region is around 170 meters depth, suggesting that these animals encounter hypoxic conditions regularly.

Interestingly, the two main krill species off the Oregon coast, Euphausia pacifica and Thysanoessa spinifera, use different strategies to deal with hypoxic conditions. Thysanoessa spinifera krill decrease their oxygen consumption rate to better tolerate ambient hypoxia, a behavioral modification strategy called “oxyconformity”. Euphausia pacifica, on the other hand, use “oxyregulation” to maintain the same, quite high, oxygen utilization rate regardless of ambient levels – which may indicate that this species will be less able to tolerate increasingly hypoxic waters (Tremblay et al., 2020).


Figure 2. This figure from Barth et al. 2024 maps the concentration of dissolved oxygen (uM/kg; cooler colors indicate less dissolved oxygen) to show an increase in hypoxic conditions over the continental shelf and slope (green and blue colors) across seven decades in the NCC region.

Over long time scales, such environmental pressures shape species physiology, life history, and evolution. The krill species Euphausia mucronate is endemic to the Humboldt Current System off the coast of South America, which includes a region of year-round upwelling and a persistent Oxygen Minimum Zone (OMZ). Fascinatingly, Humboldt krill can live in the core of the OMZ, using metabolic adaptations that even let them survive in anoxic conditions (i.e., no oxygen in the water). Humboldt krill abundances actually increase with shallower OMZ depths and lower levels of dissolved oxygen, pointing to the huge success of this species in evolving to thrive in conditions that challenge other local krill species (Díaz-Astudillo et al., 2022).


Back home in the NCC region, will Euphausia pacifica and Thysanoessa spinifera be pressured to adapt to continually increasing levels of hypoxia? If so, will they be able to adapt? One of krill’s many superpowers is an ability to tolerate a wide range of environmental conditions, including the dramatic gradients in temperature, water density, and dissolved oxygen that they encounter during their daily vertical migrations through the water column. Both species have strategies to deal with hypoxic conditions, and this capacity has allowed them to thrive in the active upwelling region that is the NCC. Now, the question is whether increasingly hypoxic waters will eventually force a threshold that compromises the capacity of krill to adapt – and then, what will happen to these species, and the foragers dependent on them?


References


Barth, J. A., Pierce, S. D., Carter, B. R., Chan, F., Erofeev, A. Y., Fisher, J. L., Feely, R. A., Jacobson, K. C., Keller, A. A., Morgan, C. A., Pohl, J. E., Rasmuson, L. K., & Simon, V. (2024). Widespread and increasing near-bottom hypoxia in the coastal ocean off the United States Pacific Northwest. Scientific Reports, 14(1), 3798. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-024-54476-0


Díaz-Astudillo, M., Riquelme-Bugueño, R., Bernard, K. S., Saldías, G. S., Rivera, R., & Letelier, J. (2022). Disentangling species-specific krill responses to local oceanography and predator’s biomass: The case of the Humboldt krill and the Peruvian anchovy. Frontiers in Marine Science, 9, 979984. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2022.979984


Peterson, J. O., Morgan, C. A., Peterson, W. T., & Lorenzo, E. D. (2013). Seasonal and interannual variation in the extent of hypoxia in the northern California Current from 1998–2012. Limnology and Oceanography, 58(6), 2279–2292. https://doi.org/10.4319/lo.2013.58.6.2279


Tremblay, N., Hünerlage, K., & Werner, T. (2020). Hypoxia Tolerance of 10 Euphausiid Species in Relation to Vertical Temperature and Oxygen Gradients. Frontiers in Physiology, 11, 248. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2020.00248

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