Article image

Summer storms stir oxygen into the deep ocean

A fascinating new discovery reveals that violent summer storms have a secret role in keeping things in balanced in the ocean.

The ocean depths teem with a mysterious world unknown to most of us land-dwellers. But this delicate ecosystem is under threat.

Warmer waters caused by climate change hold less oxygen. It’s a crisis for marine life, which needs oxygen to survive – just like us. But where does the deep sea even get its oxygen, and why is it running out?

Deep sea oxygen problem

“There is growing concern for the health of our coastal oceans as the climate warms because warmer water holds less oxygen,” explains Professor Tom Rippeth of Bangor University.

“Living creatures in the ocean are reliant on oxygen to survive in the same way as animals on land are. Oxygen is also used up as rotting matter decomposes in the depths of the ocean. This creates a summer oxygen deficit in the deep seas around the UK. Unfortunately, as our climate warms, this deficit is forecast to grow.”

In the summer months, the sun’s energy warms the surface layers of the ocean. Warmer water is naturally less dense than colder water. This difference in density creates a barrier that hinders mixing between the two layers.

This process where water masses with different properties form layers is called stratification. It’s a bit like oil and water separating in a glass – they don’t readily mix due to density differences.

The warmer, less dense top layer of the ocean interacts with the atmosphere, absorbing oxygen for use by marine life. However, this oxygen-rich water stays near the surface due to stratification – the natural separation of the ocean’s water into horizontal layers by density.

The deep ocean layer, cut off from the surface and the atmosphere, can’t replenish its oxygen. Additionally, biological processes like the decomposition of organic matter further consume the existing oxygen within this deep layer.

Summer storms and ocean mixing

You might not think of storms as helpful, but scientists from Bangor University, the University of Liverpool, and the National Oceanography Center have found they play an unexpected role.

At first glance, storms seem destructive. However, the powerful winds and waves associated with summer storms significantly churn the ocean’s surface. This turbulence disrupts stratification.

The energy of the storm doesn’t just impact the surface. It penetrates deeper, forcing the mixing of the oxygen-rich surface water with the oxygen-depleted layers below. This mixing helps replenish the oxygen in the deep ocean, combating the natural oxygen decline that occurs during summer.

Just how effective is this? The research shows that these storms can slow the worsening of deep-sea oxygen shortages by a whopping 50 percent.

Summer storms and oceans: A complex balance

This discovery underscores how seemingly isolated events, like storms far out at sea, are intricately connected to the health of deep-sea ecosystems.

It demonstrates that changes in weather patterns and storm intensity, likely influenced by climate change, have a direct bearing on the well-being of a vast marine environment and the life within it.

Renewable energy sources

The study also raises some thought-provoking questions and highlights the importance of careful planning as we look to harness renewable energy sources.

As we explore sustainable solutions like floating wind farms, this research highlights the need to understand their potential impact on ocean dynamics like mixing and oxygen distribution. This understanding will aid in making informed decisions about the best placement and design of such structures.

The need for renewable energy is clear, but this research reminds us that our actions can have far-reaching effects. It stresses the importance of thoroughly studying how our interventions interact with natural cycles in order to maintain healthy oceans.

Summer storms and the ocean’s breath

Speaking of renewable energy, there’s another twist to this story. The development of floating wind farms has the potential to further aid the ocean’s health.

“The tidal flow passed from the proposed floating wind turbines will generate a turbulent wake which will mix down oxygen in the summer. This positive impact will improve ocean health,” says Professor Rippeth.

But wait, turbines mixing the ocean? Here’s the idea: the very structures of floating wind farms could act as giant mixers, further circulating oxygenated water. However, Professor Rippeth cautions that we need to carefully consider how these farms are designed and placed to get the balance right.

Actions have consequences

The study draws attention to the fact that even when we aim to do something positive, like transitioning to clean energy, there can be unintended consequences within complex systems like our planet.

This highlights the need to invest in thorough scientific research and the development of comprehensive models. A deep understanding of how various natural systems, including the atmosphere and vast oceans, interact is crucial. Only then can we anticipate and hopefully mitigate potential negative consequences of our actions.

Towards a sustainable planet

As we work towards a greener future, it’s vital to understand the intricate workings of natural systems. Our pursuit of a more sustainable planet cannot be separated from our effort to understand the complex web of interactions that govern it. Scientific exploration isn’t just a side project – it’s integral to making informed choices that promote genuine long-term environmental welfare.

This small glimpse into the deep sea’s hidden world shows us just how much we still have to learn about the incredible planet we call home.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day