Dissolved Oxygen

  • Robert G. Wetzel
  • Gene E. Likens


The measurement of dissolved oxygen is one of the most frequently used and the most important of all chemical methods available for the investigation of the aquatic environment. Dissolved oxygen provides valuable information about the biological and biochemical reactions going on in waters; it is a measure of one of the important environmental factors affecting aquatic life and of the capacity of water to receive organic matter without causing nuisance.

Oxygen gas dissolves freely in fresh waters. Oxygen may be added to the water from the atmosphere or as a by-product of photosynthesis from aquatic plants and is utilized by many respiratory biochemical, as well as by inorganic chemical, reactions. The concentration of dissolved oxygen in water depends also on temperature, pressure, and concentrations of various ions [cf., Hutchinson (1957), Wetzel (1999)].

To be successful, a method for measuring dissolved oxygen must meet two requirements. First, owing to the small amount of substance to be determined (a few mg/l), it must be exact; second, it must be done with apparatus suited for field operation.

The method least subject to chemical errors, and probably the first to be proposed, is that of Bunsen, in which the gases are boiled out under either atmospheric pressure or diminished pressure. The amount of gas collected then is measured by absorption methods. However, the Bunsen method is too cumbersome for field work and requires considerable skill for accurate manipulation.

A few colorimetric methods have been proposed, but most have been found to be quite inaccurate, particularly at low concentrations. Although a number of chemical methods have been employed for dissolved oxygen measurement, the Winkler method, or some modification of it, is the most frequently used in limnology.

In recent times, major advances have occurred in the development and application of oxygen-sensitive electrodes for the rapid and sensitive measurement of dissolved oxygen. The Clark-type Polarographic oxygen sensors often consist of platinum anode and a gold-plated cathode, encased in an electrolyte-filled housing and separated from the water by an oxygen-permeable membrane. Oxygen must diffuse through the membrane and electrolytic solution to the electrodes. The quantity of oxygen reduced per unit time is directly proportional to the oxygen concentration in the water, and the resulting electrical current is measured with a meter [cf., Gnaiger and Forstner (1983)].

Oxygen electrodes have the advantages of speed of measurement and the potential for continuous measurement in remote places. Commerically available macroelectrodes (ca. 1–5-mm diameter) require a rapid flow of water across the membrane; without such exchange, measurements are inaccurate and unreliable. Simple up and down movements of the electrodes in the water are insufficient to provide the conditions necessary for accurate measurements. Nearly all macroelectrodes are unreliable at dissolved oxygen concentrations between 0 and 1 mg/1. This low range is critical for many major chemical transformations and dissociation reactions, as well as crucial for microbial metabolism. Macroelectrodes are not satisfactory for studies of oxygen distribution near interfaces, particularly in zones of steep oxygen gradients, as at the sediment-water interface. Problems of slow diffusion rates and inaccuracy at low oxygen concentrations are circumvented to a significant extent with oxygen microelectrodes [less than 100-μm diameter; cf., Revsbech and Jorgensen (1986)]. The advantages of small size, where sensing surfaces are only a few micrometers in diameter, and rapid response times are counterbalanced by the difficulty of construction and fragility. Nonetheless, microelectrodes are providing unprecedented understanding about the distribution and dynamics of oxygen microgradients and about the ecology of the organisms generating these gradients [e.g., Carlton and Wetzel (1987, 1988)]. Recently fiber-optic oxygen microsensors based on chemical quenching of luminescence allow measurements with great stability without chemical consumption of oxygen and no need for flow about the sensing tip (Klimant et al., 1995). These optical electrodes circumvent many of the problems associated with the electrochemical oxygen sensors. Replicated calibration of oxygen sensors by chemical methods of analysis is required with solutions containing known quantities of dissolved oxygen; calibration in air is not satisfactory. Thus, although oxygen sensors are being improved constantly and will dominate measurements of dissolved oxygen in the future, the need still exists for chemical methods of measuring dissolved oxygen.


Dissolve Oxygen Dissolve Oxygen Concentration Oxygen Sensor Potassium Iodide Dissolve Oxygen Content 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert G. Wetzel
    • 1
  • Gene E. Likens
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Biology, College of Arts and SciencesUniversity of AlabamaTuscaloosaUSA
  2. 2.Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Cary ArboretumThe New York Botanical GardenMillbrookUSA

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