Recently the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported that protecting whales could be one of the most effective ways of combating climate change. This is big news. Climate change is one of the gravest threats humanity has ever faced. We wanted to break this down by answering three main questions. First, how exactly do whales combat climate change? Second, what did the IMF say? Third, what does this mean for us, and what are we supposed to do about this?
How exactly do whales combat climate change
Whales help to mitigate climate change by capturing and storing carbon (carbon is the most significant climate change-causing greenhouse gas). Scientists have identified four different ways in which whales capture and store carbon.
- Whale poo! Whale poo is incredibly rich in nutrients and acts as a fertilizer in the ocean. This fertilizer is essential in supporting and boosting populations of phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are tiny organisms that form the foundation of the ocean ecosystem. They are the plants of the ocean: through photosynthesis, they use carbon dioxide and sunlight to create oxygen and glucose.The oxygen they give off contributes over 50% of the oxygen in our atmosphere, while the glucose they produce forms the base of the ocean food chain.They also capture roughly 37 billion tons of Carbon Dioxide a year! This is about 40% of all carbon dioxide produced per year, and as much as four Amazon rainforests!Not only are whales fertilizing the ocean, but they also transport the nutrients in their poo from nutrient-rich parts of the ocean to desolate, nutrient-poor parts. They do this in two ways. First, whales feed often feed in deep (nutrient-rich) waters and then poo in shallow waters: pumping nutrients from the depths of the ocean to the surface where the phytoplankton live. This is known as the whale pump. Second, many parts of the ocean are actually separated into different layers, which can stop nutrients from flowing between them. Whales are so large that merely by swimming through the ocean, they break up these layers and stir up nutrients towards the surface.
- Biomass carbon: Carbon is one of the foundations of life on earth: all animals have carbon in their bodies. In fact, there are around 22 pounds of carbon in the average human body! Whales, of course, weigh A LOT more than humans, and thus they store enormous amounts of carbon in their bodies. If whale populations increase, it means more carbon being stored locked away and stored in their bodies. But what happens when the whales die?
- Deadfall carbon: When whales die, they sink to the seafloor. Some of the carbon in their bodies get released back into the ocean, but much of it gets incorporated into the seabed –removing that carbon from the carbon cycle.
- Trophic cascade carbon: Whales are at the top of the food chain. If whales disappeared, their prey would flourish and would destroy the plants that store enormous amounts of carbon, such as kelp forests and seagrass beds.
The IMF Story
Based on these four different mechanisms, economists at the IMF wanted to figure out just how much carbon whales were capturing and then based on this figure place an economic value on each whale.Their study concluded that every whale is worth roughly $2 million in the fight against climate change and that the current population of all great whales is worth well over $2 trillion in our fight against climate change!
The article clearly states the difficulties with combating climate change, before asking, ‘What if there were a low-tech solution to this problem that not only is effective and economical, but also has a successful funding model’ before labeling whales, and whale conservation, as the answer.
What does this mean for humans?
Well, this is undoubtedly good news. Climate change is one of the gravest threats humanity has ever faced, and at present, we are failing in our efforts to deal with it. Now we have an efficient and relatively inexpensive way of combating climate change – which also has a wide range of other benefits such as promoting healthier oceans, boosting fisheries, benefiting tourism, and so on.
But what are we supposed to do with this information? Saving a whale isn’t as simple as planting a tree. We cannot just put a seed in the ground and wait for a whale to grow. How do you save a whale? How do you protect a whale? How do you encourage a population of whales to grow? What species do you choose to protect? Or do you focus on combating a particular threat, or perhaps instead focus on preserving a crucial habitat?
How do you save a whale?
There is no simple or easy answer. Threats such as commercial whaling, ship strikes, and entanglement in fishing gear are huge. Still, they are primarily only major threats for specific, localized populations of whales.
The problem also is not a matter of protection. In general, whales are afforded a lot of protection: certainly more than many commercially harvested species. The problem is that we just don’t know how to protect them.
The most severe threats to whales are chronic, long-term threats with ecosystem-wide impacts: such as climate change, chemical pollution, and habitat degradation.
These threats are difficult to understand because their impacts are often implicit, hampering whale’s abilities to perform essential life functions such as finding enough food or finding a mate. And the threats impact different species and different populations at different times during their seasonal movements. Understanding this complicated situation is the only way humanity is going to secure the long-term future of these animals. To understand the situation better, we need more and better data.
Ocean Alliance’s solution: drones
Drones are practical/field-friendly, capable of collecting a comprehensive stream of independently valuable data streams, and are non-invasive towards the animals. Critically, they are also inexpensive: a researcher today using a $1,000 drone can collect data of a quality that would have taken $20,000 to $50,000 to collect just 10 years ago. This significantly lowers the barriers to entry for whale researchers, democratizing whale science globally.
The goal of our DFWR program is to help the entire world benefit from the power of these tools by facilitating and expediting the drone revolution in marine mammal science. The program is not as much about the data we collect, but about the data we help others to collect.
Drones have the potential to revolutionize whale science and conservation and enable humanity to collect the data we need to understand and protect whales.