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Everyone Loves Whales, One Way or Another
March 3, 2010 11:05 AM   Subscribe

Whales are the largest animals on the planet, and when it comes to storing carbon, they act like trees in a forest. A new study suggests that industrial whaling, over the past 100 years or so has released as much carbon into the atmosphere as "burning most of Oregon's forests, or driving 128,000 Hummers for 100 years."

So an assertion from the Norwegian whaling lobby about whales being little more than CO2 dispensers (as seen a few years ago here, ) is about as wrong as pants on a humpback.

In other whalecarbon news, researchers have postulated that seeding the upper ocean with iron may increase plankton blooms thereby sequestering more carbon, and that through diving deep for squid, each whale brings up about 10 grams of iron a day from the depths and then defecates it at the surface.
posted by Danf (43 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
That's kind of fascinating- especially the iron thing.

So in short, once again it turns out Earth had all of its systems pretty goddamn well figured out and nicely balanced, and then we came along and fucked it up, like a bunch of toddlers wielding shotguns. If Gaea were a sysadmin, we'd have had our accounts deleted by now. Er...
posted by hincandenza at 11:11 AM on March 3, 2010 [7 favorites]


Whales, they poop iron?

Awesome!

Jokes aside, this is really interesting. Another reason to ban whale hunting (and hunting of other large maritime predators) entirely. Well, not that another reason was needed, really...
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:20 AM on March 3, 2010


So, does this mean massive whale farms are in our future?

Awesome!
posted by stoneweaver at 11:26 AM on March 3, 2010


Wouldn't a whale, by default, be carbon neutral just like a tree is? It takes in some carbon during its life, it dies, and a volume of carbon equal to that intake is released as it decomposes? Which is part of the argument for NOT recycling lumber and paper, as leaving it (not) rotting in a landfill sequesters the carbon and you can grow more trees? (Not advocating, just stating something I read sometime or another.)

And, while it may be true that whales are the biggest, I bet bugs sequester way more carbon. Orders of magnitude more, even.
posted by TomMelee at 11:26 AM on March 3, 2010


TomMelee -- From the lead article: "Marine systems are unique in that the animals and plant life in the surface waters of the ocean, when they die, they can take that carbon with them down to the bottom. A fully populated whale stock will continue to export carbon through sinking of dead whales."

Why the CO2 does not bubble up as decomposition takes place, I don't know, but these folks appear to believe that does not happen.
posted by Danf at 11:29 AM on March 3, 2010


So if the whales hadn't been caught via whaling, they'd never have died and their carbon would have been sequestered forever? Is there something I'm not getting here?
posted by ethnomethodologist at 11:30 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Maybe this will finally get the Japanese to stop whaling. (One can hope.)
posted by longdaysjourney at 11:33 AM on March 3, 2010


So an assertion from the Norwegian whaling lobby about whales being little more than CO2 dispensers (as seen a few years ago here, ) is about as wrong as pants on a humpback.

Only if you assume that the discovery article is correct and the whaling article is incorrect. Which is the kind of thing people with an agenda do all the time: Assume their research is right and the other side's research is wrong.

They both sound pretty spurious to me. Whales, being animals, obviously produce CO2 when they breath. And animals don't pull CO2 from the atmosphere like plants do, they get their carbon from other animals that got it from plants. The idea that they are "just like trees" is ridiculous. In fact this:
In this way, whales are like the world's forests, sucking climate-changing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere over their lifetime and socking it away.

Just sounds completely ridiculous.

The argument is that the whales go to the bottom of the sea when they die, and thus do not decompose, and therefore the carbon is never released back into the atmosphere. But actually whale's bodies do get eaten by other animals. It's no different then any other sea life that would have eaten the plankton that absorbed the sunlight.

In fact, they say just as much at the end of the article:
As for sequestering carbon, "It's a great idea. I love it." Clapham said. He cautions that he has no way of evaluating Pershing's calculations, but "presuming that they are correct, it certainly is a very novel and innovative idea and another reason to save whales."
And the idea of using carbon credits is basically just a scam. We need actual CO2 reducing things to use for carbon credits, not hypothetical just because some random person likes them.
posted by delmoi at 11:38 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


[...] Earth had all of its systems pretty goddamn well figured out and nicely balanced, and then we came along and fucked it up

Er, not really.

We're not really that special, really. plenty of organisms have fucked this place up before.

We're just FASTER
posted by Throw away your common sense and get an afro! at 11:38 AM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Is there something I'm not getting here?

Yes. Dead whales sink, and things that sink to the bottom of deep oceans are effectively out of the biosphere for very long periods of time. This is one of several methods for long-term carbon sequestration.

You could do the same thing, I suppose, by farming and harvesting mesquite or leadwood trees (or any other tree that's more dense than water) and then dumping the trunks in deep water offshore somewhere.

Also, a larger steady-state population of whales (as there was before industrial whaling) would sequester a certain amount of carbon themselves. This is similar to the carbon trapped in living forests; even though each individual tree might be "carbon neutral," the entire forest contains a lot of trapped carbon, which you release if you cut down, burn, and then pave over the forest.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:39 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Actually, whales poop ambergris. Yes, whales are so awesome that they actually crap perfume. No shit!
posted by Schmucko at 11:40 AM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


The last line of the article sort of summarizes how I feel about every pop-sci article I read:

"Presuming [his calculations] are correct, it certainly is a very novel and innovative idea."
posted by electroboy at 11:41 AM on March 3, 2010


I love whales. All roundish and spyhopping to take a peek. I empathize that they are home to barnacles and things but have trouble finding a proper scratch, that has to itch right? Here's hoping that they evolve past us to a point where they can assist our science journalists.
posted by vapidave at 11:46 AM on March 3, 2010


"The Antarctic Paradox results from a biological cycle in which the [blue] whales play a key role in providing the iron to surface waters needed by the algae on which the krill feed.

The whales release the iron in their excrement, restarting the cycle from algae to krill to whale. "

So says the linked article. This is getting interestinger by the minute.
posted by Danf at 11:48 AM on March 3, 2010


"Whales, save us!" - some character that Lily Tomlin created.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:51 AM on March 3, 2010


But... if we get rid of all the whales and take them out of the ocean, then according to Archimedes' principle we can stop sea levels rising.
posted by randomination at 11:54 AM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Maybe this will finally get the Japanese to stop whaling. (One can hope.)

Hah! Good luck. After watching The Cove (and maybe a little South Park) I am now convinced that the Japanese are absolutely 100% batshit insane when it comes to anything Cetacean-related.
posted by Rhomboid at 12:04 PM on March 3, 2010


After watching The Cove (and maybe a little South Park) I am now convinced that the Japanese are absolutely 100% batshit insane when it comes to anything Cetacean-related.

Whaling has been a part Japanese culture since paleolithic times; they're a conservative bunch (it's often said that the Japanese pickle their culture rather than developing innovative ways to grow it), and this popular conservatism has been harnessed and manipulated by politicians for any number of outcomes: a) provide economic subsidies to ruralities that were hit hard by the whaling bans of the 1970s b) use whales as a bargaining chip to achieve other diplomatic aims c) reflect the conservatism of the Japanese people by explaining the outside world is fundamentally hostile to Japan, and the ruling power elite will protect them.

Whales were considered a cheap source of animal protein after the war, but eating whale nowadays is something you do over beer (or near beer) at the pub, to demonstrate your Japanese-ness.

Anyway, the Japanese have bigger problems on the horizon: the EU is going to limit bluefin tuna exports. This will have a huge impact on Japanese food culture, and there is not a damn thing the Japanese government can do about it.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:15 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Is anyone going to save the whales?
posted by fuq at 12:15 PM on March 3, 2010


I am 1000% in favor of the strategy of sequestering carbon by filling the oceans with massive quantities of whales.
posted by nanojath at 12:19 PM on March 3, 2010


Maybe this will stop the AFA calling for Shamu's death.

and...

Chris: Dad, what's the blow-hole for?
Peter: I'll tell you what it's not for, son. And when I do, you'll understand why I can never go back to Sea World.
posted by birdherder at 12:27 PM on March 3, 2010


Is there something I'm not getting here?

Maybe that part where you're supposed to click on the link and read the article?
posted by coolguymichael at 12:29 PM on March 3, 2010


I doubt the whalers are as dangerous to whale populations as the militarization of the oceans.

The navies of the United States and its allies from Pacific Rim countries get together every two years for RIMPAC, which is the world’s largest international maritime exercise. They are allowed a "quota" of whale/marine animal loss (acceptable losses).

Discovery magazine blog - 2/1/2010 - The Navy’s own environmental impact statement notes that sonar can harm whales, though scientists don’t completely understand the specifics. But the environmental groups say there’s more to this case than sonar

"The Navy itself estimates that the current series of drills, conducted over two years, might permanently injure hundreds of whales and significantly disrupt the behavior of some 170,000 marine mammals." (NYT 2008)
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/02/opinion/02wed3.html?_r=2&oref=slogin

2009 - The federal government today issued authorization to the U.S. Navy to impact whales and dolphins while conducting sonar training exercises around the main Hawaiian Islands -- the letter of authorization and accompanying rules allow for injury or death of up to 10 animals of each of 11 species over five years. http://islandbreath.blogspot.com/2009/01/navy-to-kill-hawaiian-whales.html


More news/articles links:
http://www.orcanetwork.org/news/shoup.html
posted by Surfurrus at 12:29 PM on March 3, 2010


Earth had all of its systems pretty goddamn well figured out and nicely balanced, and then we came along and fucked it up

Uh, no. The earth doesn't think. And it's climate has changed radically over the eons.
posted by delmoi at 12:37 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


as leaving it (not) rotting in a landfill sequesters the carbon and you can grow more trees?

Whoever told you that or wrote it must have never been near enough to a landfill to smell the bacteria in the landfill break down our garbage to methane, which is even worse than carbon dioxide, as a contributor to the greenhouse effect that is causing global warming.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:58 PM on March 3, 2010


First, about the whole reycling/landfill thing: Leaving tree-products to rot in landfills is likely to produce methane, which is worse than just burning the stuff and producing CO2. Small amounts of carbon may remain trapped in solid form, but it's not really worth talking about.

But regarding the article - seems like wishful thinking/weak science or just weak reporting, I'm not sure. But dead ocean animals, presumably, are eaten after they die (even at the bottom of the ocean) and most of that carbon is likely to slowly make its way through the food chain back up to the surface. I highly doubt that all carbon in a whale is really just trapped at the bottom of the ocean, and if it is, then it would be nice to get an explanation as to why

Interesting to note, however, that any CO2 released by the body of a whale on the ocean floor is going to be in liquid form, because of the pressure and temperature. In fact, a suggested carbon sequestration method is to pump CO2 onto the sea floor in order to make CO2 "lakes", because the liquified CO2 is denser than water. Which really seems even more crazy than attempting to store it in emptied natural gas reservoirs, as it's impossible to ensure the stuff won't escape. Ocean floor lakes are even worse since we can't really know how the local ecology will respond to the lake - meaning we could wind up with a crazy boom in the population of some species, decline in another AND a bunch of leaking CO2 coming back up to the surface.
posted by molecicco at 1:22 PM on March 3, 2010


Could someone please explain to me in layman's terms why, exactly, carbon credits don't work? My brother asserted the same thing over the phone this afternoon, comparing it to "praying the rosary." My understanding was that by purchasing carbon credits I was investing in someone else reducing or sequestering carbon output - thus offsetting my environmentally deleterious, carbon-producing behavior. Is this belief incorrect?
posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:26 PM on March 3, 2010


Presuming [his calculations] are correct, when this whale hits 88 miles per hour, you're going to see some serious [iron] shit.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:36 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I bet bugs sequester way more carbon. Orders of magnitude more, even.

So we're all in agreement then? We need to start drowning bugs in the oceans. If that means I spend the rest of my life dumping tons of centipedes into the middle of the Atlantic, well, it's the price I pay for saving the planet.

(and, pretending there is some science going on here, wouldn't the implications of trapping CO2 underwater mean that we could do something similar with dead people? I'm betting our overall biomass beats Cetaceans by a lot.)
posted by quin at 1:44 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Baby_Balrog: Some people just recoil at market-based solutions and that's probably most of what you are hearing. The major problems with carbon credit trading are (1) it only works if it is enforced properly (although people can still profit from the system regardless), (2) most carbon sequestration is kind of bullshit - planting trees is great but the science on exactly how much carbon you are truly sequestering is sketchy, and there is no certainty that buried CO2 actually remains buried, and (3) gaming the system means a bunch of people profit, even though carbon emissions weren't reduced that far.

Personally, I think decent enforcement is possible, that carbon sequestration should not be included in the system, and that most of the opportunity for gaming comes from sequestration. Cap and trade was highly effective in combating acid rain, so I wouldn't dismiss carbon-credit trading altogether.
posted by molecicco at 1:54 PM on March 3, 2010


It's not that relevant to the carbon issue, but the whole topic of dead whales ("whale fall") is pretty interesting:

Whale Fall: Life After Death

When a whale dies in the ocean, its carcass can become home to entirely new ecosystems.

When whales die in the ocean, their bodies eventually sink to the bottom. Once the body comes to rest, biologists refer to this as a whale fall. As you would guess, other fish and sea animals initially eat the meat off the carcass. However, what came as a surprise to ocean researchers was the finding that dead whales support entire ecosystems.

In 1998, researchers at the University of Hawaii discovered that at least 12,490 individual organisms representing more than 43 species were living off of a whale fall in the deep North Pacific Ocean [source: Bennett et al]. But some of these sea creatures, which included rare species of clams, worms and eyeless shrimp, weren't nibbling away at the remains. Instead, the colonies were chemoautotrophic, which means they produce their own food via chemicals [source: Russo]. Chemoautotrophy is similar to photosynthesis in plants, except it doesn't require sunlight since the sun's rays don't penetrate the depths of the water..........

posted by Rumple at 2:11 PM on March 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


Baby_Balrog, you might want to watch The Story of Cap and Trade [previously].
posted by Rhomboid at 2:37 PM on March 3, 2010


Maybe this will finally get the Japanese to stop whaling.

I'm sure the Japanese will begin to research this immediately.
posted by DarkForest at 2:43 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


randomination: But... if we get rid of all the whales and take them out of the ocean, then according to Archimedes' principle we can stop sea levels rising.

I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations around that a couple of years ago. Turns out that by removing all the whales & sequestering them on land, you could reduce sea levels by ~ 0.00138 millimetres.

So it's only worth doing it for the lulz…
posted by Pinback at 2:55 PM on March 3, 2010


Don't all the krill that non-existent whales not eat sequester carbon?

More clearly: fewer whales, more krill; more krill, more carbon sequestration. Only in krill, not whales.

The iron thing, well I don't know about that. Ten grams of iron a day is pretty slim. And do krill sink when they die?

As an aside, this reminds me of the cattle industry being castigated for cattle releasing methane into the atmosphere. People then turn around and decry how we depleted the buffalo, where the plains used to run "black for days" as the mega herds passed by. Wait, what? Do buffalo not fart? Am I missing something?
posted by Xoebe at 3:32 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am NOT going to say it.
THERE! I've said it.
posted by Drasher at 4:23 PM on March 3, 2010


Schmucko: "Actually, whales poop ambergris. Yes, whales are so awesome that they actually crap perfume. No shit!"

I thought they barfed it??!?
posted by Drasher at 4:26 PM on March 3, 2010


Drasher: "Schmucko: "

I thought they barfed it??!?
"


My mistake, Poop it is.
posted by Drasher at 4:29 PM on March 3, 2010


I too thought they barfed it. But according to that Wikipedia article, they both barf AND poop it.

"Ambergris is usually passed in the fecal matter. Ambergris that forms a mass too large to exit via the anus is expelled via the mouth, leading to the reputation of ambergris as primarily coming from whale vomit."
posted by ErikaB at 5:57 PM on March 3, 2010


I remember the Asahi Shimbun printing a two page article in 2004 demonstrating (with illustrations!) that hunting whales actually helps the environment. Basically, they had two main arguments:
1. Whales are warm blooded, therefore more whales = warmer oceans = global warming.
2. Whales eat fish, so less whales = more fish.
Sadly I have never been able to find a link to this article however I did have quoted to me as a pro whaling argument at least once week for months afterwards.
posted by Wantok at 6:05 PM on March 3, 2010


You could do the same thing, I suppose, by farming and harvesting mesquite or leadwood trees (or any other tree that's more dense than water) and then dumping the trunks in deep water offshore somewhere.

Yep, but now you can't tell anybody else; that's what President Bush was doing... what, you bought the cover line? That it was "vacation"? That :was: his top-secret plan to become a "capntrade" tycoon... he will one day have the largest carbon forest in water... You didn't really think he liked "fishing" at Kennebunkport right? Fishing is like CHESS.. way too many things to do for like stuff.

He was green before green was a slogan (back when it was a colour. and a frog.). We are like trogs to his elite sense of 'vironmentalism.

I also support the theory of Awesome Squared that would have us seeding the Ocean with whales.(!)
It serves so very many purposi, doesn't it really, doesn't it. When the StarTrek-with-the-whales happens, it will be totally different, and people will love us for un-spoiling the future for them. Also the Carbon thing. Also the "Whale Fall" thing. I like this. We (whaleoceanseeders) will be seeding the sites which will likely be locations of evolution... whales randomly dispersed in the ocean are like "Islands"... thus founder effect. Let's preferably do this before we go to war with someone else... We can get people from all around the world to make promises to "feed", "water", "keep the cage clean"... (kind of like a couple having a baby together after not getting along to keep themselves together. It just might work.)
posted by infinite intimation at 10:18 PM on March 3, 2010


Also, I, being part of 'Everyone', love whales.
Ambulocetus love song for a win (except the not dying out part.)
posted by infinite intimation at 10:29 PM on March 3, 2010


"over the past 100 years or so has released as much carbon into the atmosphere as "burning most of Oregon's forests, or driving 128,000 Hummers for 100 years."

Are those metric or imperial hummers? And if they are metric hummers, can someone remind me how many libraries of congress the data space takes up to calculate the ratios of those resultant figures.

Still love em.

More now. Warning All images on page are of Cetacean origin (find waldo), and the words promote thinking about evolution.
posted by infinite intimation at 10:59 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


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