Eutrophication, the gradual increase in the concentration of phosphorus, nitrogen, and other plant nutrients in an aging aquatic ecosystem such as a lake. The productivity or fertility of such an ecosystem naturally increases as the amount of organic material that can be broken down into nutrients increases. This material enters the ecosystem primarily by runoff from land that carries debris and products of the reproduction and death of terrestrial organisms. Water blooms, or great concentrations of algae and microscopic organisms, often develop on the surface, preventing the light penetration and oxygen absorption necessary for underwater life. Eutrophic waters are often murky and may support fewer large animals, such as fish and birds, than non-eutrophic waters.
Cultural eutrophication occurs when human water pollution speeds up the aging process by introducing sewage, detergents, fertilizers, and other nutrient sources into the ecosystem. Cultural eutrophication has had dramatic consequences on freshwater resources, fisheries, and recreational bodies of water and is one of the leading causes of aquatic ecosystem degradation.
Commonly, culturally eutrophic aquatic systems may exhibit extremely low oxygen concentrations in bottom waters, a condition known as hypoxia. This is particularly true of stratified systems such as, for instance, lakes during summer when concentrations of molecular oxygen may reach levels of less than about one milligram per litre—a threshold for various biological and chemical processes. Low oxygen levels can be further exacerbated by water blooms that often accompany nutrient loading of waters and may poison wildlife. In the Black Sea and elsewhere, hypoxic waters from cultural eutrophication have resulted in massive fish kills, with rippling effects throughout the food chain and local economies.
Coastal marine systems also may be affected by this process. On a global scale, the input of organic matter by rivers into the oceans today is twice the input in prehuman times, and the flux of nitrogen, together with that of phosphorus, has more than doubled. This excess loading of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus has led to cultural eutrophication of numerous marine systems, including several polluted eastern U.S. estuaries (e.g., Chesapeake and Delaware bays), the Gulf of Mexico near the Mississippi River, and some estuaries of western Europe (e.g., the Scheldt of Belgium and the Netherlands).
Much of the phosphorus in streams and lakes is delivered from agriculture, both through soil erosion and fertilizer runoff. Nitrogen from municipal sewage treatment plants and the direct runoff from animal feedlots are serious problems in many places. Pollution control and improved municipal, industrial, and agricultural practices could do much to curb the cultural eutrophication of inland and coastal waters.
Written by The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Top image credit: ?Leonid Andronov/iStock.com