How whales play a crucial role in assisting the function of the earth?

How whales play a crucial role in assisting the function of the earth?

In terms of combating climate change and maintaining marine health, saving whales may be more important than planting trees.

The whale is the largest animal in the world, it can provide fertilizer for phytoplankton, and this phytoplankton can absorb 40% of the world’s carbon dioxide.

From this point of view, the role of whales cannot be underestimated.

Besides, a large amount of carbon is stored in the whale’s body; after death, the carbon will sink to the bottom of the sea, and sometimes it can be stored there for hundreds of years.
Gray whale cub:  Image copyright @ Tony Wu

Last year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that whales are worth more than the US $ 1 trillion in carbon storage and maintaining the health of marine functions.

Based on its contribution to carbon capture, fisheries proliferation, and tourism, the whale value is more than $ 2 million.

However, in the past two hundred years, the number of whales in the global ocean has dropped from 5 million to 1.5 million today.

Commercial whaling has been banned for more than 30 years. However, they still face various effects brought about by humans, such as plastic and noise pollution, injuries by ships, entanglement by fishing gear, and oceans caused by global warming variety.
Dead whale carcass 

During its long life, whales can accumulate and store carbon in their bodies through eating.

Some whales weigh up to 200 tons and have an average life span of 70 years.

The life span of bowhead whales is estimated to be as long as 268 years. After the whale died, its body and the carbon stored in the body sank to the bottom of the sea.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that each whale can store an average of 33 tons of carbon dioxide, while a tree absorbs only 22 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year.

Planting trees is considered to be the cheapest and fastest way to eliminate carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Still, evidence shows that there is also excellent carbon capture potential for protecting and expanding whale populations.
Decomposing  process of a whale after death (whale falling)

Whale carcasses that sink to the bottom of the sea take decades to decompose, and they can constitute a complete ecosystem by themselves and can provide a large number of direct food sources for deep-sea species ranging from scavengers to bacteria.

Priceless feces
A group of sperm whales gathers together to defecate. It is unclear why this rarely-recorded behavior occurs. (It may be a defense mechanism, or it may simply be a social activity / Image © Tony Wu )

However, living whales can make more contributions to carbon capture, thanks to their giant feces.

Their feces contain many nutrients such as phosphorus, iron, and nitrogen, which are necessary for the growth of phytoplankton microorganisms.

Phytoplankton consumes carbon dioxide and produces oxygen during photosynthesis.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that phytoplankton can capture about 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to 1.7 trillion trees, or four Amazon rainforests.

They also contribute 50% to 85% of oxygen to the earth’s atmosphere.

Sylvia Earle, a famous marine explorer from National Geographic magazine, estimates that every five times humans breathe, one of the oxygen comes from phytoplankton.

Scientific research has shown that whales can bring about “multiple effects,” where they increase phytoplankton production.

In addition to the vertical movement of nutrients from the depth s of the ocean to the sea, the so-called “whale pump” action, whales, also drive the lateral diffusion of these nutrients through a large scale migration movement, the phenomenon of “whale conveyor belt.”

I am grateful to Tony Wu for the use of his photographs in this article.

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Rajitha Dissanayake

Researcher in the field of Marine Mammals and Bio-acoustic

I'm a master’s scholar in marine mammals and bio-acoustic laboratory, Institute of Deep-Sea Science and Engineering (IDSSE), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and focusing on the sustainable environmental application, conservation, and exploring all aspects of the ecology and behavior of marine mammals.

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