Looking beyond stratification: a model-based analysis of the biological drivers of oxygen deficiency in the North Sea
Abstract. Low oxygen conditions, often referred to as oxygen deficiency, occur regularly in the North Sea, a temperate European shelf sea. Stratification represents a major process regulating the seasonal dynamics of bottom oxygen, yet, lowest oxygen conditions in the North Sea do not occur in the regions of strongest stratification. This suggests that stratification is an important prerequisite for oxygen deficiency, but that the complex interaction between hydrodynamics and the biological processes drives its evolution.
In this study we use the ecosystem model HAMSOM-ECOHAM to provide a general characterisation of the different zones of the North Sea with respect to oxygen, and to quantify the impact of the different physical and biological factors driving the oxygen dynamics inside the entire sub-thermocline volume and directly above the bottom.
With respect to oxygen dynamics, the North Sea can be subdivided into three different zones: (1) a highly productive, non-stratified coastal zone, (2) a productive, seasonally stratified zone with a small sub-thermocline volume, and (3) a productive, seasonally stratified zone with a large sub-thermocline volume. Type 2 reveals the highest susceptibility to oxygen deficiency due to sufficiently long stratification periods (> 60 days) accompanied by high surface productivity resulting in high biological consumption, and a small sub-thermocline volume implying both a small initial oxygen inventory and a strong influence of the biological consumption on the oxygen concentration.
Year-to-year variations in the oxygen conditions are caused by variations in primary production, while spatial differences can be attributed to differences in stratification and water depth. The large sub-thermocline volume dominates the oxygen dynamics in the northern central and northern North Sea and makes this region insusceptible to oxygen deficiency. In the southern North Sea the strong tidal mixing inhibits the development of seasonal stratification which protects this area from the evolution of low oxygen conditions. In contrast, the southern central North Sea is highly susceptible to low oxygen conditions (type 2).
We furthermore show that benthic diagenetic processes represent the main oxygen consumers in the bottom layer, consistently accounting for more than 50 % of the overall consumption. Thus, primary production followed by remineralisation of organic matter under stratified conditions constitutes the main driver for the evolution of oxygen deficiency in the southern central North Sea. By providing these valuable insights, we show that ecosystem models can be a useful tool for the interpretation of observations and the estimation of the impact of anthropogenic drivers on the North Sea oxygen conditions.