Pumping New Life into Brackish Baltic Sea

PHOTO: A file photo of an aerial view taken on August 10, 2003 of the algae slick off the Northern German Baltic coast near the Fehmarnsund-bridge.

Polluted and virtually cut off from the restorative flow of other bodies of water, Europe's Baltic Sea is slowly running out of oxygen. But one scientist hopes to artificially oxygenate it with pumps. Critics worry there could be unforeseen consequences.

The thin ice crunches as the cutter breaks through, chugging along at a leisurely pace to the middle of the fjord. In the wheelhouse, Anders Stigebrandt has his steel blue eyes locked on the screen in front of him. He's in a great mood. It's been another good day of outsmarting nature.

The boat passes a few red wooden houses on the shore beyond the Swedish port city of Uddevalla, where too much industrial sewage has been allowed too drain into the fjord.

The nutrients contained in the runoff of fertilizers, sewage sludge and liquid manure all encourage the growth of algae. When the algae later dies, it sinks to the sea floor, where it decomposes with the help of micro-organisms, which consume the oxygen of the deep in the process. In turn, fish, mussels and crustaceans disappear from these oxygen-poor areas.

The Byfjord on Sweden's west coast serves as Stigebrandt's model for the largest marine death zone ever created by humans -- a 60,000 square kilometer patch of the Baltic Sea floor. Over the years, some 20 million tons of nitrogen and 2 million tons of phosphorus have flowed into the semi-enclosed sea, and it is slowly running out of life-giving oxygen.

Stigebrandt wants to artificially aerate it, and his experiment in the fjord is intended as the start of a much larger project in the Baltic.

Big Plans for the Baltic

His two colleagues jump onto a raft anchored in the water, where two pumps with propellers as large as cement mixers are rotating above the surface. They are pushing water masses into the depths below.

At this location the fjord is around 40 meters (131 feet) deep. From the shore, the sea floor drops rapidly to form a basin, and the conditions are comparable to those in the Baltic Sea, where the water near the surface has more oxygen and less salt than the water below. Due to the difference in salt content, the two layers hardly mix naturally at all.

The propellers whir, and the apparatus sounds like an oversized aquarium. Slowly, the pumps begin to mix the water layers, bringing more oxygen to the deep and more salt to shallower depths. This helps the water to mix better. But Stigebrandt is also hoping to take advantage of another effect: When oxygen is present on the sea floor, it also helps to bind the phosphates that are so damaging to sea life populations to the sediments -- thus reducing the amount of phosphorus found in the water column.

Next, Stigebrandt wants to test the pumps in the Baltic Sea, preferably powered by wind. Swedish authorities have funded his initial experiment with some €230,000 ($302,000). It is estimated that oxygenating the Baltic Sea would require around 100 pump stations, and would come at a cost of around €200 million.

Doubts About Environmental Benefits

Stigebrandt's biggest critic, Daniel Conley, says he finds the experiment fascinating, but hopes the idea never comes to fruition. "Of course it could work," says the biochemistry professor at Sweden's Lund University. "We sent people to the moon and dried up one of China's largest lakes. If we wanted to, we could oxygenate the entire Baltic Sea." But, he adds, it would likely never be the same.

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