Eutrophication refers to an increase of nutrients in a body of water. Although eutrophication is a natural process, when it is accelerated it is an issue for concern. Many human activities have led to widespread eutrophication in rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans around the world. If left unchecked, eutrophication becomes a problem, severely impacting water quality and biodiversity. Eutrophication was first recognized as a problem in the middle of the 20th century, and many biologists study it extensively in an attempt to prevent further eutrophication of vital bodies of water around the world.
In the sense of a natural process, eutrophication is part of the aging of bodies of water. When a body of water initially forms, it tends to be low in nutrients. As streams feed the body of water, they carry nutrients which foster plant life, ultimately allowing other species to grow as well. A layer of sediment slowly grows, and gradually the body of water will ultimately turn into a marsh or bog, as the sediment displaces the water and the species in the area change.
However, eutrophication can be rapidly accelerated by human activities, in which case it is known as “nutrient pollution.” Fertilizer and manure runoff from farms is a leading cause of eutrophication around the world. As these nutrients enter the water supply, they encourage an explosion of plant life and algae, an event sometimes called an algae bloom. The plant life dramatically reduces the amount of available oxygen in the water, ultimately choking out animal species and creating a so-called “dead zone.”
Oceanic dead zones are a major issue, since many of them have emerged in areas which one yielded plentiful marine life. The Gulf of Mexico, for example, has an infamous dead zone which is larger than the state of New Jersey. Lakes and rivers which are experiencing eutrophication can be readily identified, as they often turn bright green or red as a result of the algae blooms in their waters. These shocking colors are signs of serious ill health, and a major concern to scientists.
Because eutrophication is undesirable, many nations have worked to prevent it. Farms, for example, are expected to closely control their fertilizers and manure, and environmental agencies may fine these facilities for runoff above acceptable levels. Many countries also try to remove nutrient pollution in their waters, and they may use other measures to create eutrophication buffer zones, preventing the spread of the problem.