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How exactly does dissolved oxygen affect water?

How exactly does dissolved oxygen affect water quality? A high DO level in a community water supply is good because it makes drinking water taste better. However, high DO levels speed up corrosion in water pipes. For this reason, industries use water with the least possible amount of dissolved oxygen.

Water used in very low pressure boilers have no more than 2.0 ppm of DO, but most boiler plant operators try to keep oxygen levels to 0.007 ppm or less. Dissolved oxygen (DO) refers to the amount of oxygen dissolved in water and is particularly important in limnology (aquatic ecology). Oxygen comprises approximately 21% of the total gas in the atmosphere; however, it is much less available in water. The amount of oxygen water can hold depends upon temperature (more oxygen can be dissolved in colder water), pressure (more oxygen can be dissolved in water at greater pressure), and salinity (more oxygen can be dissolved in water of lower salinity). Many lakes and ponds have anoxic (oxygen deficient) bottom layers in the summer because of decomposition processes depleting the oxygen.

The amount of dissolved oxygen often determines the number and types of organisms living in that body of water. For example, fish like trout are sensitive to low DO levels (less than eight parts per million) and cannot survive in warm, slow-moving streams or rivers. Decay of organic material in water caused by either chemical processes or microbial action on untreated sewage or dead vegetation can severely reduce dissolved oxygen concentration. This is the most common cause of fish kills, especially in summer months when warm water holds less oxygen anyway.

Dissolved oxygen (DO) refers to the volume of oxygen that is contained in water. Oxygen enters the water as rooted aquatic plants and algae undergo photosynthesis, and as oxygen is transferred across the air-water interface. The amount of oxygen that can be held by the water depends on the water temperature, salinity, and pressure. Gas solubility increases with decreasing temperature (colder water holds more oxygen). Gas solubility increases with decreasing salinity (freshwater holds more oxygen than does saltwater). Both the partial pressure and the degree of saturation of oxygen will change with altitude. Finally, gas solubility decreases as pressure decreases.

Thus, the amount of oxygen absorbed in water decreases as altitude increases because of the decrease in relative pressure. Once absorbed, oxygen is either incorporated throughout the water body via internal currents or is lost from the system. Flowing water is more likely to have high dissolved oxygen levels compared to stagnant water because the water movement at the air-water interface increases the surface area available to absorb the oxygen. In flowing water, oxygen-rich water at the surface is constantly being replaced by water containing less oxygen as a result of turbulence, creating a greater potential for exchange of oxygen across the air-water interface. Because stagnant water undergoes less internal mixing, the upper layer of oxygen-rich water tends to stay at the surface, resulting in lower dissolved oxygen levels throughout the water column.

Oxygen losses readily occur when water temperatures rise, when plants and animals respire (breathe), and when aerobic microorganisms decompose organic matter. Oxygen levels are also affected by the diurnal (daily) cycle. Plants, such as rooted aquatic plants and algae produce excess oxygen during the daylight hours when they are photosynthesizing. During the dark hours they must use oxygen for life processes. Dissolved oxygen may play a large role in the survival of aquatic life in temperate lakes and reservoirs during the summer months, due to a phenomenon called stratification (the formation of layers). Seasonal stratification occurs as a result of water's temperature-dependent density. As water temperatures increase, the density decreases.

Thus, the sun-warmed water will remain at the surface of the water body (forming the epilimnion), while the more dense, cooler water sinks to the bottom (hypolimnion). The layer of rapid temperature change separating the two layers is called the thermocline. At the beginning of the summer, the hypolimnion of the lake will contain more dissolved oxygen because colder water holds more oxygen than warmer water. However, as time progresses, an increased number of dead organisms from the epilimnion sink to the bottom and are broken down by microorganisms. Continued microbial decomposition eventually results in an oxygen-deficient hypolimnion. If the lake has high concentrations of nutrients, this process may be accelerated. When the growth rate of microorganisms is not limited by a specific nutrient, such as phosphorus, the dissolved oxygen in the lake could be depleted before the summer's end.

Microbes play a key role in the loss of oxygen from surface waters. Microbes use oxygen as energy to break down long-chained organic molecules into simpler, more stable end products such as carbon dioxide, water, phosphate and nitrate. As microbes break down the organic molecules, oxygen is removed from the system and must be replaced by exchange at the air-water interface. Each step above results in consumption of dissolved oxygen. If high levels of organic matter are present in a water, microbes may use all available oxygen. This does not mean, however, that the removal of microbes from the ecosystem would solve this problem. Although microbes are responsible for decreasing levels of dissolved oxygen, they play a very important role in the aquatic ecosystem. If dead matter is not broken down it will "pile up," much as leaves would if they were not broken down each year.


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