APR 24, 2017 06:41 PM PDT

Coastal ecosystems are threatened by nitrite from climate change

Marine biologists James Hollibaugh and Sylvia Schaefer from the University of Georgia have determined a correlation between high water temperatures and the presence of nitrite in coastal ecosystems. Their results were published recently in Environmental Science and Technology.

Nitrite is a gas that microorganisms produce after they consume the ammonium found in animal waste, treated sewage or fertilizers. Too much nitrite acts as a fertilizer and can cause algal blooms, which create hypoxic zones in marine environments, resulting in the death of most marine life. Until now, it was thought that the lack of oxygen in these zones were the reason for accumulation of nitrite, which resulted in fish and other marine wildlife’s deaths. Nitrite is known to kill fish in aquariums, a phenomenon that provides a microcosm of how it affects marine life.

However, Hollibaugh and Schaefer decided to rethink the cause of nitrite accumulation. By analyzing environmental monitoring data from 270 locations across the U.S., France and Bermuda, they determined that in fact it is the rising temperature of waters that drives the accumulation of nitrite.

They also performed experiments that exposed the single-celled organisms called Thaumarchaea to varying water temperatures. "The microorganisms involved in this process are very tolerant to low oxygen levels," Schaefer said. "Typically, two groups of microorganisms work in really close concert with one another to convert ammonium to nitrate so that you don't see nitrite really accumulate at all, but we found that the activity of those two groups was decoupled as a result of the increased water temperatures." These experimented showed that higher water temperatures resulted in the microorganisms producing more nitrite.

Mangroves and other coastal ecosystems are vulnerable to rising water temperatures. Photo: Pinterest

The authors are hopeful for the significance of their study. "The information gained from monitoring programs, like the ones we used to analyze temperature and nitrite data across the country and in other countries, can be used not only to forecast what is going to happen down the road and the longer-term consequences of management decisions, but also to come up with potential solutions for the problem,” said Hollibaugh. “The data collected by these programs are important for wise management of our resources."

Management of resources, and pollution policies, specifically those for agricultural fertilizers will be key because nitrite accumulation can also produce nitrous oxide, which is a potent greenhouse gas that has more of an effect on climate change per molecule than carbon dioxide, Hollibaugh reports. Unfortunately, that sets off a positive feedback loop, because nitrous oxide production then increases global temperatures, raising sea temperatures, and resulting in more nitrite accumulation.

Sources: Science Daily, Science Times

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
You May Also Like
DEC 17, 2018
Plants & Animals
DEC 17, 2018
New Aquatic Salamander Species Described in New Study
A new aquatic salamander species has been discovered, and researchers are almost entirely sure it matches the description of a previously-unknown animal th...
DEC 18, 2018
Plants & Animals
DEC 18, 2018
Rival Dolphin Groups Take Turns Sharing Regions, Study Finds
It’s no secret that dolphins are some of the ocean’s most intelligent creatures, and perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s more to be learned a...
DEC 19, 2018
Plants & Animals
DEC 19, 2018
Different Pilot Whale Groups Exhibit Different Call Dialects, Study Finds
Depending on where you’re from, you may speak the same language as someone else, but with a slight accent or dialect that sets your speech apart from...
JAN 01, 2019
Plants & Animals
JAN 01, 2019
Recent Tsunami in Indonesia Sparks Fear for the Critically-Endangered Javan Rhino
Indonesia’s Javan Rhino is one of the most elusive rhino species in the world. With just 63-67 of the animals still alive today, the International Un...
JAN 05, 2019
Microbiology
JAN 05, 2019
The Gut Microbiome can Help Shield Against Arsenic Toxicity
The microbes in our gut are intricately related to our health and well-being, and scientists continue to gain insight into that relationship....
FEB 12, 2019
Earth & The Environment
FEB 12, 2019
Scientist swims Tennessee River and finds unprecedented plastic pollution
One researcher recently undertook an interesting strategy in order to analyze levels of microplastics in the Tennessee River: swimming. Dr. Andreas Fath, a...
Loading Comments...