How Much Oxygen Does Algae Produce
It is not every day that you ask yourself how much oxygen does algae produce. After all, many assume that plants on land are the top producers of the air we breathe.
But only 29% of the Earth’s surface is terrestrial, and the world has already lost ⅓ of its forest. So, it is not far-reaching to say that when it comes to oxygen production, the oceans, which cover 71% of the world, have won as they supply over half of the world’s oxygen.
Even more surprising is that algae, these tiny single-celled creatures, are the primary game players in this scene. How can something so small play such an essential role in the survival of life on Earth, especially for those who cannot breathe underwater?
In this article, let us find out about the following:
All about Algae
Algae are a group of species from the animal kingdom Protista. They refer to any organism that can produce oxygen through photosynthesis and is primarily aquatic and nucleus-bearing organisms.
You can think of them as microscopic plants in the ocean minus the plants' roots, stems, leaves, and multicellular reproductive structures. However, they too can live in colonies or take giant leafy forms, like seaweed and kelp. But their photosynthetic pigments and unique set of cells set them apart from their terrestrial cousins.
Despite their size, algae perform some of the most crucial tasks in ecology: to produce oxygen and to be the very base of the food chain.
Meanwhile, for humans, algae offer various purposes. They are excellent natural resources for crude oil, food, and pharmaceutical and industrial products.
Aren’t algae poisonous?
Indeed, all algae are not beneficial. Some species of algae can exude lethal toxins to marine life. For example, the dinoflagellates are algae that release toxins harmful to fish, shellfish, and even air-breathing organisms, causing the ever-dreaded red tide when fish and shellfish become unsafe to eat.
How do algae grow?
Algae are actually not exclusive to aquatic environments. They can grow literally anywhere, even in the air. As long as there is enough sunlight, nutrients (like vitamin B12 complex and fatty acids), and just the right temperature, algae can thrive, according to the authors of Algae: Anatomy, Biochemistry, and Biotechnology Second Ed.
When it comes to reproduction, the book's authors also mention that algae can produce sexually and asexually. Small algae reproduce asexually through vegetative methods like simple cell division or mitosis, and larger species do so by releasing spores. On the other hand, those who reproduce sexually are induced to produce sex cells called gametes due to environmental stimuli, like unfavorable temperature levels, salinity, and nutrients.
Lastly, because algae rely on light for energy and nutrients, they have seasonal growth. And different species prefer different conditions. Due to this, there are different kinds of algal blooms at different times of the year.
Algae and Oxygen Production
According to this study by Michael D. Gury, there are “30,000 to more than 1 million species” of algae, with about 72,000 species officially processed at the online taxonomic database AlgaeBase.
Meanwhile, there are seven types of algae that we, humans, are most familiar. These are Euglenophyta (euglenoids), Chrysophyta (golden-brown algae and diatoms), Pyrrophyta (fire algae), Chlorophyta (green algae), Rhodophyta (red algae), Phaeophyta (brown algae), and Xanthophyta (yellow-green algae).
The type of algae that produce the most oxygen
Among the millions of different kinds of algae, National Geographic asserts that “Prochlorococcus and other ocean phytoplankton are responsible for 70 percent of Earth’s oxygen production.”
What is more surprising is that, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Prochlorococcus are the “smallest photosynthetic organism on Earth.” Yet, they are responsible for most of the oxygen produced from the ocean. They make up to 20% of the oxygen in our biosphere—more than all the rainforests on land can produce. Simply put, that is the answer to “how much oxygen does algae produce?”.
That is the closest number scientists can produce, as the oxygen levels in the ocean are difficult to measure. Even if they can use satellite imagery to track how much oxygen algae produce, the level varies per season in response to the varying levels of algal stimuli.
Because of pollution, many bodies of water are becoming more nutrient-rich, thus triggering algal blooms. Some may think that more algae means more oxygen, not in this case.
Algal blooms are naturally occurring. However, the extremities of the phenomenon are not. And when there are too many algae on the surface of the water, it could have a negative effect—dead zones.
Dead zones, or hypoxic zones, are, according to NOAA, biological deserts where there is less oxygen dissolved in the water. It makes the body of water uninhabitable for marine life. Instead of brimming with life naturally, most marine life dies or migrates off the area.
Climate change, pollution, and water health
The Scientific American reports that, during summer 2021, “more than 100 miles of Florida’s coastal waters became an oxygen-depleted dead zone.” This area is just a tiny part of an entire 6,334 square miles dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. This is the largest it has been in the last five years, as reported in this NOAA news release.
The unexpected level is about 30% larger than what experts at NOAA estimated after considering their annual data. “The distribution of the low dissolved oxygen was unusual this summer,” said lead investigator Nancy Rabalais, Ph.D."
Scientists noted that the nutrient surplus, especially nitrogen and phosphorus, is from cities, farms, and other sources in upland watersheds that drain into the Gulf. Along with the increasing temperatures, that can be a significant stimulus for excessive algal growth.
In the end, when the algae die, they sink to the bottom, where oxygen-consuming bacteria aids in their decay. The decomposition of thousands of dead algae wipes out the oxygen levels in the water.
It is only when storms come with significant amounts of rainfall and wind that new oxygen is introduced to the water. This is how extreme changes in climate affect nutrient flow in marine habitats.
EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox supported this in the same NOAA news release by saying that “Climate is directly linked to water, including the flow of nutrient pollution into the Gulf of Mexico,” and abnormal climate patterns such as limited rainfall influence nutrient flow.
Ocean’s cry for change
Sadly, it is not only the Gulf of Mexico affected by hypoxic areas. Overall, the International Union for Conservation Nature (IUCN) reports that the amount of oxygen that the oceans produce has been down by 2% since the middle of the 20th century.
With continuous extreme anomalies in climate patterns and rising temperatures due to fatal levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, IUCN warns that the decrease in oxygen levels will be up to 3-4% by 2100.
This is our ocean’s cry for change. The unjustifiable amount of wastes and chemicals from inland sources and the mountains of trash found in the middle of the ocean will surely leave the world with insurmountable levels of ocean deoxygenation.
Oxygen deoxygenation ultimately leads to curtailed biodiversity, changes in species distribution, and proliferated algal bloom—disrupting the ocean’s life-sustaining services. To curb these dangers to life as we know it, we need to tackle climate change and pollution with utmost priority.
That is why, for your surfing needs, help us repurpose trash in the ocean by supporting products, like Wave Tribe’s Eco Leash, made of recycled materials. Also, opt for sustainably produced surfing gear from Wave Tribe.
Make a difference by joining us to Heal The Oceans.
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