Writing about the whales last week reminded me of this great article from December last year that I was planning to do a longer write-up on, but then promptly forgot about – until now! It’s just the kind of zany, harebrained science that really gets me all a-titter here at Save the World Headquarters: fighting climate change with whales – specifically, whale poop. Astute readers will recognize that this is not the first time I have discussed whale poop, as it is apparently a matter of considerable interest to certain scientists (and of considerable concern to their colleagues. no doubt). But giant turds are only one part of this equation so let’s start at the beginning.
- Whales are huge animals made (mostly) of carbon, so each time a ‘great whale’ (the big ones, like the blue whales) dies its body brings about 33 tons of carbon down to the sea floor and out of the atmosphere for hundreds of years.
- They also fight climate change while living! Yay! Whales promote nutrient circulation through their vertical movements in the water column while feeding and also their horizontal movements during migrations from breeding grounds to feeding grounds. Those nutrients spark phytoplankton growth, ya know, the tiny marine plants that absorb 40% of the atmospheric CO2 that’s produced. That’s the equivalent of 1.7 trillion ‘goddamn’ trees or four ‘holy hell, really? FOUR?’ Amazon Rainforests.
- Number two (hehe) is also where the fecal contribution comes in. The way whales circulate those nutrients is through bowel evacuation. Whale waste is rich in nitrogen and iron (just like fertilizer) which is exactly what phytoplankton need to bloom Kblamo! Poop science! I know this part sounds ridiculous but we’ve actually known about it for quite a while.
- Look! A picture! It’s better than words!
- Now for some math to help prove this whole scheme could work. Whales of all species are currently at about 1/4 of their pre-whaling population levels (some, like blue whales are 3% as abundant as they were). If we can grow populations enough to cause even a 1% increase in phytoplankton growth annually, that’s the equivalent of 2 billion trees. Two. Billion. And millions of tons of CO2 captured. Oh, and then multiply that for 60 years, or the average lifespan of a whale. It adds up fast.
- The folks that wrote this article are actually a bunch of economists who looked at all this whale carbon sequestering and poop fertilizing-related research and said “What’ll it cost to make this happen?”. They calculated the value to planet Earth of restoring the whale populations to be about $13 per person per year. This would be money spent, for example, on helping countries enact protections for whale populations that visit their waters, reimbursing shipping companies who detour their routes to avoid whale strikes, etc. Now, I’m not going to pretend to know if this is a lot (the authors don’t say) but it is important. While I believe, and many agree, that restoring whale populations has an intrinsic value all its own, not everyone believes that – hell, not even everyone believes there’s value in mitigating CO2 and halting climate change. But there is a concrete cost to any solution, and to some people cost is the major motivating factor when deciding to take action to save the planet, or let it burn. So that $13 dollars is something us pie-in-the-sky hippy types can take to the suits and say “Hey, we’ve done our homework and crunched the numbers. Are we gonna do this thing, or not?”.
I know this was already a little denser than normal, but I absolutely encourage you to go read the source article as well. The authors go into the value of whales beyond phytoplankton boosting (like ecotourism and fisheries benefits) and also break down what the concrete costs of whale restoration might look like, who would bear them, and who would pay them. It’s fascinating, heartening, and about giant poops – a textbook definition of R.A.D.
Johnny Venger wants you to remember that reading this on your phone on the toilet does not count as fighting climate change, but he does appreciate it.