Whales and Climate Change: How Are They Linked?

Published on March 8th, 2010 | by

Two issues close to the hearts of many environmentalists (or even the average person now) — addressing climate change and protecting  endangered whales — are now being seen as linked issues.

Whales are huge! Blue whales are the largest creatures on Earth. An elephant, the largest animal that lives on land, could stand on a blue whale’s tongue. Its heart is the size of a small car. A sperm whale has a brain the size of a car and you could swim in its veins.

Image Credit: kevygee whale-breaching
Protecting whales to address climate change

Whales are like other animals and plants, they consist of a good amount of carbon. Of course, being the huge animals that they are, they contain a bit more than you and me.

Dr. Andrew Pershing, a scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the University of Maine, recently reported new research findings regarding the amount of carbon whales store in their bodies and the implications of whaling on global climate change.

Whales: Forests of the Ocean

Dr. Pershing refers to whales as “forests of the ocean” and reports that 100 years of whaling may have released over 100 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

He says that “this marine system is unique because when whales die [naturally], their bodies sink, so they take that carbon down to the bottom of the ocean.” If a whale dies at a deep enough level, that carbon may not reach the atmosphere for hundreds of years. However, whaling may cause that carbon to be released into the atmosphere much sooner.

Protecting Whales to Address Climate Change

Carbon emissions from whaling are not as great as from other activities (i.e. driving, livestock production and energy production), but they are still significant.

“In their initial calculations, the team worked out that 100 years of whaling had released an amount of carbon equivalent to burning 130,000 sq km of temperate forests, or to driving 128,000 Humvees continuously for 100 years,” Victoria Gill of BBC reports.

To help address this issue, Dr. Pershing has suggested creating a similar system of carbon credits for saving whales as are being used to protect forests.  “The idea would be to do a full accounting of how much carbon you could store in a fully populated stock of fish or whales, and allow countries to sell their fish quota as carbon credits,” says Pershing.

This new idea has me feeling happy and inspired. But it doesn’t stop there. Other large marine animals like sharks (perhaps more endangered than tigers) and bluefin tuna could also be protected using a similar system.

Hopefully, we will see this move forward in the climate change discussions soon.


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