Reviews and syntheses: Present, past, and future of the oxygen minimum zone in the northern Indian Ocean

Tim Rixen, Greg Cowie, Birgit Gaye, Joaquim Goes, Helga Do Rosário Gomes, Raleigh R. Hood, Zouhair Lachkar, Henrike Schmidt, Joachim Segschneider, Arvind Singh

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Decreasing concentrations of dissolved oxygen in the ocean are considered one of the main threats to marine ecosystems as they jeopardize the growth of higher organisms. They also alter the marine nitrogen cycle, which is strongly bound to the carbon cycle and climate. While higher organisms in general start to suffer from oxygen concentrations 63 M (hypoxia), the marine nitrogen cycle responds to oxygen concentration below a threshold of about 20uM (microbial hypoxia), whereas anoxic processes dominate the nitrogen cycle at oxygen concentrations of 0.05uM (functional anoxia). The Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal are home to approximately 21% of the total volume of ocean waters revealing microbial hypoxia. While in the Arabian Sea this oxygen minimum zone (OMZ) is also functionally anoxic, the Bay of Bengal OMZ seems to be on the verge of becoming so. Even though there are a few isolated reports on the occurrence of anoxia prior to 1960, anoxic events have so far not been reported from the open northern Indian Ocean (i.e., other than on shelves) during the last 60 years. Maintenance of functional anoxia in the Arabian Sea OMZ with oxygen concentrations ranging between >0 and 0.05uM is highly extraordinary considering that the monsoon reverses the surface ocean circulation twice a year and turns vast areas of the Arabian Sea from an oligotrophic oceanic desert into one of the most productive regions of the oceans within a few weeks. Thus, the comparably low variability of oxygen concentration in the OMZ implies stable balances between the physical oxygen supply and the biological oxygen consumption, which includes negative feedback mechanisms such as reducing oxygen consumption at decreasing oxygen concentrations (e.g., reduced respiration). Lower biological oxygen consumption is also assumed to be responsible for a less intense OMZ in the Bay of Bengal. According to numerical model results, a decreasing physical oxygen supply via the inflow of water masses from the south intensified the Arabian Sea OMZ during the last 6000 years, whereas a reduced oxygen supply via the inflow of Persian Gulf Water from the north intensifies the OMZ today in response to global warming. The first is supported by data derived from the sedimentary records, and the latter concurs with observations of decreasing oxygen concentrations and a spreading of functional anoxia during the last decades in the Arabian Sea. In the Arabian Sea decreasing oxygen concentrations seem to have initiated a regime shift within the pelagic ecosystem structure, and this trend is also seen in benthic ecosystems. Consequences for biogeochemical cycles are as yet unknown, which, in addition to the poor representation of mesoscale features in global Earth system models, reduces the reliability of estimates of the future OMZ development in the northern Indian Ocean.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6051-6080
Number of pages30
Issue number23
StatePublished - Dec 4 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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