Posted by: chrismaser | April 9, 2012


The ocean, Mother of all waters, has a single body but is known by many names: Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Mediterranean Ocean, Red Sea, Indian Ocean, China Sea, Coral Sea, Sea of Japan, Yellow Sea, Arctic Ocean, Beaufort Sea, and others. Although the waters cover different parts of the world, they all share the commonality of anthropogenic pollution.


Air pollution directly affects vegetation by altering the quality of the soil and water as well as the quality and quantity of the sunlight that drives the plant/soil processes. The chemicals we spew into the air also alter the climate and thus the environment in which the vegetation grows.

Soil, which is the main terrestrial vessel, receives, collects, and passes to the water all air-borne, human-caused pollutants. In addition, such pollutants as sewage, excess chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and oil, on, are added directly to the soil—and through the soil to the water. At times, such pollutants make their way into the air as dust, and hence are redistributed more widely over the planet’s surface through strong winds, which carry aloft the topsoil following deforestation, desertification, and such practices as intensive farming, which ultimately affect water.

Water, the great collector, washes and scrubs pollutants from the air by rain and snow. Water also leaches both naturally occurring and artificially produced chemicals from the soil, which, bearing tons of toxic effluents, are increasing transported into ditches,1 streams, and rivers to the point where they enter the ultimate vessel, the combined oceans of the world. Water is a captive of gravity, so all the pollutants it accumulates on its downhill journey eventually end up in oceans worldwide.2

Ditches (like streams) form a continuum or spectrum of physical environments, a longitudinally connected part of the ecosystem in which downstream processes are linked to and influenced by upstream processes. The ditch continuum begins with the smallest ditch and ends at the ocean. So it is that little ditches feed bigger ditches, and bigger ditches eventually feed streams and rivers that ultimately feed the ocean.

As organic material floats downhill from its source to the sea, it gets processed as food by aquatic organisms and thus becomes ever smaller and more dilute, as the volume of water carrying it gets larger. Here the question is: What happens to the continuum concept when a ditch is polluted?

To pollute a ditch means to contaminate it by dumping human garbage into it directly or by discharging noxious substances into it indirectly though such activities as agricultural use of petrochemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, as well as oil and hydraulic fluid from farm vehicles, all of which in one way or another disrupt biological processes, often by corrupting the integrity of their chemical interactions.

While Nature’s organic matter (food energy) from the forest is continually diluted the further down the stream continuum it goes, pollution (especially chemical pollution) is continually concentrated the further down the ditch continuum it goes because it gathers its potency from the discharge of every contaminated ditch that adds its waters to the passing flow. Hence, with every ditch that is polluted, the purity of the stream and river accepting its fouled discharge is to that extent compromised, and the amount of pollution that ends up being dumping into the estuaries and oceans of the world through the ditch-stream continuum is staggering.

How, I wonder, can we learn to care for rivers and oceans if we continually defile the ditches that feed them? The answer is: We cannot!

We must learn to care first and foremost for the humble things in our environment, such as a roadside ditch, before we can learn how to care for the mighty things in our environment, such as a river. Defile the ditch, and we defile the stream, river, estuary, and ocean in like measure. Protect the ditch, and we protect the stream, river, estuary, and ocean in like measure.3

I once asked a chemist for a paper mill just how toxic the chemicals were that the company was discharging into the water. He didn’t know, but he said the small percentage of active ingredients were tested and relatively harmless, and that the rest of the compound was “inert”—a corporate ruse.

The so-called inert constituents of chemical compounds are not only untested for toxicity but also can recombine with other chemicals in the soil or water or both to become toxic. It is critical to understand that “inert” is an industrial euphemism whereby the illusion of chemical inactivity is suggested. But, a truly inert substance is a biophysical impossibility in an interactive system because there is no such thing as an independent variable.

Moreover, the mill’s manager assured me that, “The answer to pollution is dilution”—another corporate euphemism to debunk because it hides a basic truth and thus has tragic results. This euphemism is most often used in terms of pollution in streams and rivers. Bear in mind, however, that, while moving water can dilute chemicals put into it, they concentrate when moving water entrers “still” bodies of water, such as lakes, which are separate entities (Lake Baikal, Great Lakes, Lake Geneva, Lake Zurich, Lake Tanganyika), and oceans (Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Red Sea, Coral Sea, Sea of Japan, Caspian Sea, Aegean Sea, Mediterranean), which have common connections.

There is yet another profound difference between lakes and oceans, however, in that most lakes have outlets, which allows inflowing water to flush them of pollutants to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the lake.

But, oceans have no outlets whereby these pollutants can be flushed, so they are continually concentrated both through the inflow of contaminated streams and rivers and through the evaporation and cycling of water from the ocean’s surface, which is carried hither and yon by the currents of air. As the airborne moisture condenses into drops of rain, it collects pollutants on its journey back to the ocean, where they can only become part of the endless, self-reinforcing feedback loop of toxic chemical compounds—thereby affecting such animals as sharks and dolphins, which store pollutants in their body fat, and polar bears, which suffer from pollutant-induced shrinking of their gonads.4


Water, in the form of rain or snow, not only washes and scrubs chemical pollutants from the air but also leaches them from the soil as it obeys the call of gravity. Not all pollutants are carried in trickle, ditch, stream, and river to be concentrated in the oceans of the world. Some are concentrated in groundwater, including subterranean lakes. Moreover, it’s extremely difficult to stop the pollution of groundwater, especially from synthetic fertilizers like those used to produce corn, which includes nitrogen. “Once polluted,” counsels ecologist Eugene Odum, “groundwater is difficult, if not impossible, to clean up, since it contains few decomposing microbes and is not exposed to sunlight, strong water flow, or any of the other natural purification processes that cleanse surface water.”5

There is, however, a belowground analog to the aboveground journey of water in subterranean seeps, trickles, and rivulets, which coalesce into streams and rivers that flow from the mountains to the ocean entirely below ground. On reaching the oceans, they enter the marine environment through porous soils along beaches, just below the salty surface, or erupt as fresh-water springs on the ocean floor of the continental shelf near many of the world’s shores, where the fresh water influences the dynamics of the marine ecosystem. Around 480 cubic miles of fresh water enter the world’s oceans each year as submarine groundwater, although some coastlines provide considerably more than others.6

The pressure of ocean water does not control the groundwater discharge. In fact, a submarine spring can flow equally well whether in shallow coastal waters or at the bottom of a deep ocean trench. There are, however, three specific conditions required for a significant submarine flow of offshore groundwater. First, there must be sufficient precipitation in the region to sustain the supply of groundwater. Second, the subsurface geological materials (aquifers) through which the water flows must be permeable enough to allow the easy seaward movement of the water. Third, the source of the groundwater must be sufficiently high in elevation to provide a pressure gradient strong enough to push the water along in aquifers extending outward from the land beneath the sea. In addition, the volume of submarine-groundwater discharge represents an important vehicle for the delivery of nutrients, carbon, metals, and pollutants to the ocean.7

These hidden waterways are worldwide conduits that, like their aboveground counterparts, today increasingly deliver myriad human-made, toxic, and carcinogenic chemical compounds from agricultural fields and tree farms; from urban settings, industrial complexes, and fractured-rock drilling for natural gas to the oceans of the world. But, around 2,000 years ago, the Roman geographer Strabo wrote about the residents of Latakia, Syria, who rowed their boats 2½ miles out into the salty Mediterranean, where they dove a few yards to the ocean floor and collected fresh, safe drinking water in goatskin containers for the residents of their city.8


Simply put, a dead zone is an aquatic area lacking of sufficient dissolved oxygen to support life. Today, the world’s oceans are being increasingly plagued by human-caused dead zones (analogous to an “oxygen desert”), of which 530 occur near inhabited coastlines worldwide, where aquatic life is most concentrated, including 40% or 1,792 square miles of Chesapeake Bay’s total area of 4,479 square miles. Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States, lies off the Atlantic Ocean, where it is surrounded by the states of Maryland and Virginia.

What, you might wonder, could cause such a zone in the ocean. A dead zone is caused by a process known as “eutrophication,” which is triggered by an excess of plant nutrients from fertilizers, livestock manure, human sewage, combustion emissions from vehicles, power generators, and factories. However, the use of chemical fertilizers is considered the major human-related cause of dead zones around the world.

This chemical pollution provides an excess of nutrients—primarily nitrogen and phosphorus—that stimulates an explosive growth of phytoplankton that allows zooplankton to proliferate, which in turn leads to what is commonly referred to as an “algal bloom” or “red tide.” “Eutrophication” is from the Greek eutrophia, “healthy, adequate nutrition,” which in turn is from the Greek eu, “good” plus trophe, which refers to “food” or “feeding.”

Although phytoplankton produces oxygen in the daytime via photosynthesis, during the night hours it continues to undergo cellular respiration that increasingly depletes the water column of available oxygen. Moreover, as the algal bloom grows, it progressively blocks sun’s light from reaching the underwater plants (submerged aquatic vegetation), as well as deeper phytoplankton, which in turn decreases the zooplankton’s supply of food.

As phytoplankton and zooplankton die and sink below the zone where photosynthesis can occur, a bloom of natural bacterial degradation of the dead plankton exhausts the water’s dissolved oxygen, which suffocates life below the algal boom by consuming the dissolved oxygen from the surrounding water—thus the term “dead zone.” Whereas low levels of oxygen have led to reproductive problems in fish (decreased size of reproductive organs, low egg counts, and a lack of spawning), oxygen depletion in the world’s oceans could spark the development of far more male fish than females, thereby threatening some species with extinction.

The size of dead zones, which fluctuate seasonally, is driven largely by climate and such weather patterns as wind, precipitation, temperature, and the inflow of rivers. This dynamic is, in part, the result of a self-reinforcing feedback loop between dead zones across the planet and ramifications of the current trends in climate change, which are altering the worldwide patterns of circulation in the ocean. As a result, dead zones are appearing in areas where heretofore they usually did not.

Winds and currents oxygenate oceanic waters. As they change, they sometimes prevent the ocean’s upwelling from mixing the water that introducing influxes of nutrients. However, a warmer, wetter climate, along correspondingly higher winter and spring flows in rivers, will likely deliver more oxygen-depleting nutrients to the ocean—thereby exacerbating the size and negative impacts dead zones, in part because warmer water has less capacity to retain dissolved oxygen.9


The majority of today’s industrial farmers are not only addicted to synthetic chemicals but also have addicted the soils they farm. Beyond the application of synthetic fertilizers, the natural gas used in their production accounts for 90 percent of the cost of the ammonia, which is the basis for the nitrogen fertilizer applied to such crops as corn. The pesticides and herbicides required to produce these vast monocultures are also gas-based petrochemicals. And then there is the substantial amount of diesel fuel needed to operate the farm machinery. And this says nothing of the enormous quantity of water this exceedingly thirsty crop requires—1,700 gallons for each gallon of ethanol produced, which in turn leaches farm pollutants into the groundwater.10 Where might this water come from? Where does it go? Ask the Mississippi River.

As the water of the Mississippi River flows toward the Gulf of Mexico, collecting runoff from the Appalachian Mountains to the Rocky Mountains and everywhere in between, it passes through ten states, through massive agricultural fields and by numerous towns and cities. It not only gathers fertilizers and pesticides from the Corn Belt along its journey but also leached sewage from the urban areas. By the time the Mississippi enters the Gulf, its current has been transformed into a conduit for chemical nutrients, and this enriched current stimulates massive blooms of phytoplankton. Consequently, it forms a dead zone the size of Massachusetts (7,900 square miles) every summer, which has existed since the 1970s and supports almost no life beyond phytoplankton and bacteria.

What’s more, much of the water entering the Mississippi comes from massive fields of corn, which is grown in soil with tile drains that allow more nitrogen to seep into the river than from other crops without drainage tiles. Therefore, making ethanol from corn not only will cause more cornfields to be planted but also will exacerbate the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico—perhaps beyond repair.11

The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is not the only anthropogenic one however. The Changjiang River basin of China has the third largest discharge of water in the world, and it empties into the East China Sea from Shanghai, which is the fastest developing area of China. With the increasing nutrient load from the river, a severely oxygen-depleted dead zone, on the order of 7,688 square miles, formed in the sea. Rather than coming mainly come from the Changjiang River, the dead zone developed because of decomposing organic detritus that was transported by the ocean current from the south.

Nevertheless, the dead zone is maintained by stratification between the large volume of fresh water from the Changjiang River and the salty water from the Taiwan Strait. This same phenomenon applies to other estuaries with large inflows of fresh water and drainage from rapid economic growth, such as the Pearl River basin. Furthermore, the dead zone adjacent to the Changjiang estuary is much more sensitive than that outside the Mississippi River.12


As illustrative of the industrial connection, consider the uninvited contribution to oceans of the drug manufacturers in Patancheru, near Hyderabad, southern India—a major production site of generic drugs for the world market. In Hyderabad, the industrial plant that processes effluent from the 90 large pharmaceutical manufacturers in Patancheru discharges highly contaminated water into a stream that eventually joins the Godavari River, the second largest in India to empty into the Indian Ocean, which it then contaminates. The released water contains astronomical amounts of antibiotics, along with large concentrations of analgesics, drugs for hypertension, and antidepressants. Furthermore, in keeping with a common practice, the treatment plant mixes raw human sewage with contaminated effluent, which contains enormous quantities of antibiotics that will encourage the evolution of bacteria to resist these same antibiotics.

Ultimately, therefore, pharmaceuticals, ranging from painkillers to synthetic estrogens, are entering the waterways of the world, and thus the global oceans, through human excreta, hospital and household wastes, and agricultural livestock production, as well as from water-treatment plants. Synthetic estrogens and their mimics are known to have negative impacts not only on the sustainability of populations of indigenous fish but also on the developmental processes of amphibians in streams that receive polluted water from municipal wastewater-treatment plants.13

And finally, there are the infamous oil spills that befoul the water, ocean bottom, and beaches killing millions of life forms in myriad species. Although I could go on, I would only be reiterating ad nauseum the same unconscious behavior just different pollutants.

Oceans in Crisis:

• Meeting The Ocean

• Resource Overexploitation

• Acidification

• Overfishing

• Marine Protected Areas

• Human Garbage

• Noise

• Temperature

• Lessons We Need to Learn For the Sake of All Generations

Related Posts:

• Principle 1: Everything is a relationship

• Principle 4: All systems are defined by their function

• Principle 6: All relationships are self-reinforcing feedback loops

• Principle 9: All relationships are irreversible

• Principle 11: All systems have cumulative effects, lag periods, and           thresholds

• A Prime Directive For Healing The Earth


1. (1) Chris Maser. The Humble Ditch. Resurgence, 172 (1995):38-40.; (2) Chris Maser. Abnormal Coloration in Microtus montanus. Murrelet, 50 (1969):39; and (3) Earl Bardsley. Conveying Waste with Water. New Zealand Science Monthly.

2.(1) E.P.Sauer, P.A. Bower, M.J. Bootsma, and S.L. McLellan. Detection of the Human Specific Bacteroides Genetic Marker Provides Evidence of Widespread Sewage Contamination of Stormwater in the Urban Environment. Water Research, 45 (2011):4081-4091; (2) R. M.Litton, J. H. Ahn, B.Sercu, and others. Evaluation of Chemical, Molecular, and Traditional Markers of Fecal Contamination in An Effluent Dominated Urban Stream. Environmental Science & Technology, 44 (2010):7369-75; and (3) Willard S. Moore, Jorge L. Sarmiento, and Robert M. Key. Submarine Groundwater Discharge Revealed By 228Ra Distribution in the Upper Atlantic Ocean. Nature Geoscience, 1 (2008):309-311.

3. The preceding discussion of the stream-ditch-order continuum is based on: (1) Chris Maser and James R. Sedell. From the forest to the sea: The Ecology of Wood in Streams, Rivers, Estuaries, and Oceans. St. Lucie Press, Delray Beach FL. 1994. 200 pp and (2) Chris Maser. The Humble Ditch. Resurgence, 172 (1995):38-40.

4. (1) Janet Raloff, “Sharks, Dolphins Store Pollutants,” Science News, 170 (2006): 366, and (2) Christian Sonne, Pall S. Leifsson, Rune Dietz, and others, “Xenoendocrine Pollutants May Reduce Size of Sexual Organs in East Greenland Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus),” Environmental Science & Technology, 40 (2006): 5668–5674.

5. Eugene P. Odum, Ecology and Our Endangered Life Support Systems. (Stanford, CT: Sinauer Associates, 1989).

6. (1) Perrine Fleury, Michel Bakalowicz and Ghislain de Marsily. Submarine Springs and Coastal Karst Aquifers: A Review. Journal of Hydrology, 339 (2007):79-92; (2) D. Reide Corbett, William C. Burnett, and Jeffrey P. Chanton. Submarine Groundwater Discharge: An Unseen Yet Potentially Important Coastal Phenomenon. University of Florida IFAS Extension.; (3) Sid Perkins. Invisible Rivers. Science News, 168 (2005):248-249; and (4) Takeshi Uemura, Makoto Taniguchi, and Kazuo Shibuya. Submarine Groundwater Discharge In Lützow-Holm Bay, Antarctica, Geophysical Research Letters, 38, L08402, 6 PP., 2011

7. (1) Earl Bardsley. Conveying Waste with Water. New Zealand Science Monthly.; (2) Perrine Fleury, Michel Bakalowicz and Ghislain de Marsily. Submarine Springs and Coastal Karst Aquifers: A Review. Journal of Hydrology, 339 (2007):79-92; and (3) D. Reide Corbett, William C. Burnett, and Jeffrey P. Chanton. Submarine Groundwater Discharge: An Unseen Yet Potentially Important Coastal Phenomenon. University of Florida IFAS Extension.

8. Sid Perkins. Invisible Rivers. Science News, 168 (2005):248-249.

9. The foregoing discussion of dead zones is based on: (1) Sam Teicher. 2019. Wetter Climate To Worsen Chesapeake Bay Dead Zone. ; (2) Eva H. H. Shang, Richard M. K. Yu, and Rudolf S. S. Wu. Hypoxia Affects Sex Differentiation and Development, Leading to a Male-Dominated Population in Zebrafish (Danio rerio). Environmental Science & Technology, 40 (2006): 3118–3122; (3); (4); and (5) National Science Foundation.

10. (1) Tad W. Patzek, “Thermodynamics of the Corn-Ethanol Biofuel Cycle,” Critical Reviews in Plant Science, 23 (2004):519–567; (2) Jason Hill, Erik Nelson, David Tilman, and others. Environmental, Economic, and Energetic Costs and Benefits of Biodiesel and Ethanol Biofuels. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103 (2006):11206–11210; (3) Alice Friedemann. Peak Soil.; and (4) Lian Pin Koh, “Potential Habitat and Biodiversity Losses from Intensified Biodiesel Feedstock Production,” Conservation Biology, 21 (2007):1373–1375.

11. Discussion of the dead zone is based on; (1) Thomas O’Connor and David Whitall. Linking Hypoxia to Shrimp Catch in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 54 (2007):460–463; (2) Donald Scavia and Kristina A. Donnelly. Reassessing Hypoxia Forecasts for the Gulf of Mexico. Environmental Science & Technology, 41 (2007):8111–8117; and (3) Sarah C. Williams. Dead Serious. Science News, 172 (2007):395–396.

12. The preceding two paragraphs are based on Hao Wei, Yunchang He, Qingji Li, and others. Summer Hypoxia Adjacent to the Changjiang Estuary. Journal of Marine Systems, 67 (2007):292–303.

13. The preceding two paragraphs are based on: D. G. Joakim Larsson, Cecilia de Pedro, and Nicklas Paxeus. Effluent from Drug Manufactures Contains Extremely High Levels of Pharmaceuticals. Journal of Hazardous Materials, 148 (2007):751–755.

Text © by Chris Maser 2012. All rights reserved.

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