Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Science Serving Maryland's Coasts

Research Publications: UM-SG-RS-2009-19


Temporal responses of coastal hypoxia to nutrient loading and physical controls.




Kemp, WM; Testa, JM; Conley, DJ; Gilbert, D; Hagy, JD


Biogeosciences 6(12):2985-3008

Open Access: 

This article is freely available online. You can use the DOI number to find it through the journal's website or through a search engine.


The incidence and intensity of hypoxic waters in coastal aquatic ecosystems has been expanding in recent decades coincident with eutrophication of the coastal zone. Worldwide, there is strong interest in reducing the size and duration of hypoxia in coastal waters, because hypoxia causes negative effects for many organisms and ecosystem processes. Although strategies to reduce hypoxia by decreasing nutrient loading are predicated on the assumption that this action would reverse eutrophication, recent analyses of historical data from European and North American coastal systems suggest little evidence for simple linear response trajectories. We review published parallel time-series data on hypoxia and loading rates for inorganic nutrients and labile organic matter to analyze trajectories of oxygen (O-2) response to nutrient loading. We also assess existing knowledge of physical and ecological factors regulating O-2 in coastal marine waters to facilitate analysis of hypoxia responses to reductions in nutrient (and/or organic matter) inputs. Of the 24 systems identified where concurrent time series of loading and O-2 were available, half displayed relatively clear and direct recoveries following remediation. We explored in detail 5 well-studied systems that have exhibited complex, non-linear responses to variations in loading, including apparent 'regime shifts'. A summary of these analyses suggests that O-2 conditions improved rapidly and linearly in systems where remediation focused on organic inputs from sewage treatment plants, which were the primary drivers of hypoxia. In larger more open systems where diffuse nutrient loads are more important in fueling O-2 depletion and where climatic influences are pronounced, responses to remediation tended to follow non-linear trends that may include hysteresis and time-lags. Improved understanding of hypoxia remediation requires that future studies use comparative approaches and consider multiple regulating factors. These analyses should consider: (1) the dominant temporal scales of the hypoxia, (2) the relative contributions of inorganic and organic nutrients, (3) the influence of shifts in climatic and oceanographic processes, and (4) the roles of feedback interactions whereby O-2-sensitive biogeochemistry, trophic interactions, and habitat conditions influence the nutrient and algal dynamics that regulate O-2 levels.

Related Research Project(s) Funded by Maryland Sea Grant: 

Maryland Sea Grant Topic(s): 

'Related Research Project(s)' link to details about research projects funded by Maryland Sea Grant that led to this publication. These details may include other impacts and accomplishments resulting from the research.

'Maryland Sea Grant Topic(s)' links to related pages on the Maryland Sea Grant website.