Whales may play important but overlooked role in tackling climate crisis, researchers say |  CNN

Whales may play important but overlooked role in tackling climate crisis, researchers say | CNN


The largest whales in the world are more than just amazing creatures. Like the ocean, soil and forests, whales can help save humanity from the accelerating climate crisis by sequestering and storing carbon emissions that are warming the planet, researchers say.

In a paper published Thursday in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, climatologists suggest that whales are important but often overlooked carbon sinks. The enormous size of these marine mammals, which can reach 150 tons, allows them to store carbon much more efficiently than smaller animals.

And because whales live longer than most animals, some for more than 100 years, the paper said they could be “one of the largest stable living carbon reservoirs” in the ocean. Even when they die, whale carcasses sink to the deepest parts of the sea and settle on the seabed, trapping the carbon they have stored in their tough, protein-rich bodies.

One indirect way whales can be critical carbon sinks is through their feces. Whale poo is rich in nutrients that can be taken up by phytoplankton – tiny organisms that suck up carbon dioxide as they grow. When they die, the phytoplankton also sink to the bottom of the seabed, carrying tiny bits of carbon into their carcasses.

The process of carbon sequestration helps mitigate climate change because it traps carbon that would otherwise have warmed the planet elsewhere for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Yet whales are threatened, with six of the 13 species of great whales listed as endangered or vulnerable due to threats such as industrial whaling, which has reduced whale biomass by 81%, as well as the entanglement with fishing gear, climate change-induced changes in prey availability. , noise pollution and more.

Heidi Pearson, lead author and researcher at the University of Alaska Southeast, said research shows protecting whales has a dual benefit: helping stem the biodiversity crisis as well as climate change caused by the man.

The document brings together all available research on the functioning of whales as critical carbon sinks. As the need grows for nature-based solutions such as planting trees to help solve the climate crisis, Pearson said it’s important to understand whales’ ability to sequester carbon.

“You can think of protecting whales as a low-risk, low-regret strategy because there really is no downside,” Pearson told CNN. “What if we protect them and get ecosystem benefits in addition to carbon? She said this strategy poses no risk compared to other expensive and untested solutions to capture and sequester carbon, such as geoengineering. There has been a lot of research and analysis on whales’ contribution to carbon storage over the years.

In 2019, economists from the International Monetary Fund attempted to quantify the economic benefits of whales. The first of its kind analysis looked at the market price of carbon dioxide, then calculated the whale’s total monetary value based on the amount of carbon it captures, in addition to other economic benefits like ecotourism. He put the average value of a large whale at $2 million.

But there remain large knowledge gaps to fully determine how whale carbon should be used in climate change mitigation policies. Asha de Vos, marine biologist and founder of Oceanswell in Sri Lanka, said it was important to recognize that whales have “more to offer than their beauty and charisma”, and that their protection is essential for the proper functioning of the ocean ecosystem.

“But, as the authors suggest, we shouldn’t overemphasize the role of whales in these spaces because we don’t have enough research,” de Vos, who is not involved in the study, told CNN. study. “Basically, whales won’t save our oceans or our planet on their own, but they likely play a role in the larger system.”

As Pearson continues to research whale carbon in Alaska, particularly the indirect pathways by which whales may be carbon sinks, she said she hopes the current paper will prompt policy makers to consider the whales as an important part of climate mitigation strategies.

It’s another layer that connects the biodiversity crisis to the climate crisis – but for now, Pearson said she and a team will return to the field to fully quantify the whales’ carbon impact.

“Whales are not a magic bullet to save the planet; it’s just one small thing we could do among many other things we need to do for climate change,” Pearson said. “We just need to get the science story straight.”

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