Oxygen Loss, Our Worst Environmental Nightmare Unfolding But … OpEd


An environmental crisis is slowly unfolding globally but the human race is hardly aware of it. If some are, they are not doing anything to arrest the trend because they hardly understand why. By the time the whole world realize it, the crisis may have reached nightmarish proportions.

We are losing our oxygen.

The earth’s oxygen level in the earth’s atmosphere, especially over oceans and shorelines, has fallen by over a third compared to thousands of years ago.

Worse, in polluted cities, especially those in China, India, East Asia, California in the US and some European nations, the oxygen decline has reached about 50 percent.

Deadly Air, Oxygen Bars and Cafes

The earth’s atmosphere is building up with dangerous greenhouse gasses (GHGs) like CO2, methane, sulphur and nitrous oxides due to burning of fossil fuels and widespread deforestation. These are trapped below the already damaged ozone layer. The deadly GHGs are replacing oxygen molecules as the Boyle’s law of physics dictate.

The replacement of oxygen molecules is lowering the 21 percent land oxygen level in many parts of the globe. This means clean oxygen usually inhaled by humans are now a deadly mixture of greenhouse gasses and oxygen.

Deng Xiao Li, a factory worker in the coastal city of Shanghai, personifies how the oxygen is thinning in the polluted city of 25 million. He works from graveyard shift till two at noon, coughing every 15 minutes. Before heading home, he drops by an oxygen café, inhaling fresh air from an oxygen tank for an hour which he pays for 15 US dollars.

These oxygen bars now exist in Japan, India, US, Canada and some European countries. It will not be long now when oxygen, once free becomes commodified globally.

Three recent documents point out evidences oxygen is fast thinning and that alarm bells should be rang. One, a study by Dr. Denise Breitburg, Principal Investigator and Senior Scientist of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center with 21 other scientists from prestigious institutions where they concluded in January this year, that the oxygen level of the earth’s oceans and coastal waters are fast declining.

“The amount of water in the open ocean with zero oxygen has gone up more than fourfold. In coastal water bodies, including estuaries and seas, low-oxygen sites have increased more than 10-fold since 1950”, they said.

Loss of Oxygen Increasing Marine Life Mortality

Brietburg and her colleagues said “Oxygen is fundamental to life in the oceans,” meaning that the loss of oxygen mean death of many marine life, with serious adverse effects to the food chain, and eventually, to humans’ food security.

“The decline in ocean oxygen ranks among the most serious effects of human activities on the Earth’s environment,” the scientists said. They form the group GONE (Global Ocean Oxygen Network), a new working group created in 2016 by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission.

Low oxygen supply is seen as the major cause of corals’ death, as well as the diminishing population of crabs, shrimps, squids, several shell fishes, some fish species and even seahorses.

Dead Zones, Fish Cemeteries

In the oceans, there are now so-called “dead zones”, areas where there is low level of dissolved oxygen, so low many animals suffocate and die.

Marine denizens avoid these zones, and they become more vulnerable to predators or fishing as their natural habitat shrinks. The oxygen decline stunt growth of marine creatures, hinder reproduction and lead to disease or even death.

Low oxygen also can trigger the release of dangerous chemicals such as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas up to several times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and toxic hydrogen sulfide. While some animals can thrive in dead zones, overall biodiversity falls, the scientists added.

The marine biologists’ grim assessment comes after another scientific study released last year by the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (Georgia Tech) bared that the amount of dissolved oxygen contained in the ocean water – an important measure of ocean health – has been declining for more than 20 years.

Associate Prof. Taka Ito of Georgia Tech, along with researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the University of Washington-Seattle, and Hokkaido University in Japan revealed oxygen levels in the oceans are impacting negatively on marine organisms and their habitats worldwide causing more frequent “hypoxic events” that killed or displaced populations of fish, crabs and many other organisms.

Ito and his associates said “The trend of oxygen falling is about two to three times faster than what we predicted from the decrease of solubility associated with the ocean warming.”

“This is most likely due to the changes in ocean circulation and mixing associated with the heating of the near-surface waters and melting of polar ice, “ they explained.

Thinning Oxygen Level on Land

The oxygen level on land is threatened as well, The atmospheric oxygen level on land is 21 percent compared to about 35 per cent during the prehistoric times.

Australian scientist Ian Plimer of Adelaide University and Professor Jon Harrison of the University of Arizona accept that oxygen levels in the atmosphere in prehistoric times averaged 35 percent compared to only 21 percent today.

The levels are even lower in densely populated, polluted city centers and industrial complexes, perhaps only 15 percent or lower, both concluded.

In an upcoming book The Oxygen Crisis, author Roddy Newman claims the change in the makeup of the air we breathe has potentially serious implications for our health, it could ultimately threaten the survival of human life on earth.

In Central California, especially at Monterey, scientific researchers Alice S. Ren, Fei Chai, and Hujie Xue bared declining dissolved oxygen levels for the past 16 years. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO), University of California at San Diego confirm this.

Death in Eight Minutes Without Oxygen

On the average, the US National Institute for Health (NIH) estimates humans normally breathe air that is 20 to 21 percent oxygen by volume under normal atmospheric pressure conditions.

If this level is decreased even slightly by one to two per cent, it causes ill effects to the human body.

As a result, people will not be able to work normally especially in doing strenuous work.

In oxygen environments of 15 percent to 19 percent, movement and coordination are affected. With oxygen depletion down to only 10 percent to 12 percent, respiration increases, lips turn blue and judgment is impaired. Fainting and unconsciousness begin to occur at 8 percent to 10 percent oxygen. Death occurs in 8 minutes at 6 percent to 8 percent oxygen, NIH stressed.

We Are the Enemy

Oxygen is supplied by trees and plants as well as phytoplanktons in the oceans through the process of photosynthesis. One mature tree, at least ten years old of any species releases about 45 pounds of oxygen to the atmosphere every year while sequestering at the same time 45 pounds of CO2.

Three to four trees supply the oxygen needs of one human being annually.

But forests worldwide are being cut at a rate of 14 hectares per minute, a cut rate so fast that ridicules all combined reforestation efforts.

Ten thousand years ago, the forest cover on earth was at least twice what it is today, which means that forests now are emitting only half the amount of oxygen compared to years before.

In Indonesia, West Papua, Burma, Congo Basin in Africa and the Amazon of South America, deforestation is twice the said cut rate with many tree species entering the endangered and extinct list of trees by the conservation watchdog International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The seas’ phytoplankton concentration on the other hand is diminishing, down to 30 per cent lower today compared to fifty years ago due to pollution of seawater.

The culprit behind forests and phytoplanktons’ destruction are humans’ un-reined greed and appetite for economic wealth.

At the rate that these resources are being destroyed, the time will come when oxygen will barely support human existence.

Then humans will find out they cannot breathe their money.

*Michael Bengwayan is a Filipino environmental activist

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan wrote for the British Panos News and Features and GEMINI News Service, the Brunei Times, and US Environment News Service. In the Philippines, he wrote for DEPTHNews of the Press Foundation of Asia, Today, the Philippine Post, and Vera Files. A practicing environmentalist, he holds postgraduate degrees in environment resource management and development studies as a European Union (EU) Fellow at University College, Dublin, Ireland. He is currently a Fellow of Echoing Green Foundation of New York City. He now writes for Business Mirror and Eurasia Review.

One thought on “Oxygen Loss, Our Worst Environmental Nightmare Unfolding But … OpEd

  • October 14, 2018 at 6:21 pm

    Interesting article though it should be based on -and including links to reports and scientific literature. An activist is the first one who should responsibly study the issue he/she defends. If not, this remains to be a journalistic pamphlet


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