How Does Whale Poop Fight Climate Change?

blue whale poop, whale poop
Blue whale poop by Ian Wiese

Did you know that whales are climate change fighting machines? If saving them for their majesty and beauty wasn’t enough, whales actually help fight climate change. This is due to whale poop, of all things.

Blue Whale Poop

Take the largest animals to roam the Earth, present day or past, the blue whales. Blue whales reach lengths of 100 feet and 190 tons. When they poop, they release the by-products of the krill they eat.
Essentially whale poop is fertilizer for the plants of the ocean, the phytoplankton. The phytoplankton, wherever the blue whale migrates to, are stimulated to grow. They, like terrestrial plants, use carbon dioxide and sunlight to grow. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. The less of it in the air, the better it is for planet Earth and its warming climate.

Phytoplankton thanks

The phytoplankton take sunlight and carbon dioxide and turn it into food and oxygen. Take a breath, and sigh it out. Take another breath and exhale. One of those breaths is thanks to phytoplankton growing in the ocean! Thanks phytoplankton!

Whale migration

Whales are constantly swimming and migrating to new places in search of food. Along the way they poop out nutrients and voila, the phytoplankton begin to grow and nourish the bottom of the food chain there. The phytoplankton grow where they wouldn’t have otherwise without whale poop and the critters in those spots benefit.

Nutrients brought up from depths

Whales also dive in search of food-think of a sperm whale fighting a giant squid for a meal-and bring up nutrients from the ocean depths and deposit them at the surface where phytoplankton live and grow.

Whale falls

Although it’s sad to think about, whales die and sink to the sea floor. One whale body can bring 190,000 tons of carbon (equivalent to the emissions of 80,000 cars in a year) from the surface to the sea floor. This is a part of carbon sequestration, which just means capturing carbon somehow and taking it out of the air. In this case it means taking carbon from the surface (the whale) and depositing it on the sea floor. There many animals benefit from eating and scavenging the whale, and the carbon get deposited and stays there.

Whale poop and Fisheries

Last, but not least, whales and their poop can help enhance fisheries. There will be higher rates of food productivity in places where whales feed and give birth. The whale poop stimulates the phytoplankton at the bottom of the food chain, and fish at the higher levels of the food chain benefit and grow and reproduce.

So while being magnificent in their own right, whales and their poop are climate change fighters!

Did you know sea otters also help fight climate change?

Whale poop and climate change: here’s what you need to know by National Marine Sanctuary Foundation

Blue Whale Caught on Camera Having a Poo

Terry the Pteropod on Ocean Acidification

Hello, my name is Terry and I’m a pteropod.  What exactly is a pteropod?  Well, I’m also called a sea butterfly and I have been described as a “coffee bean with wings.”  What I really am is a marine snail that is about the size of a lentil, which is less than half an inch long.  My terrestrial snail cousins have a hard shell on the outside and a soft body inside, while my shell is on my inside and my gelatinous goo is on the outside.

Why am I important?  Well if polar bears are the poster animals for the melting polar ice caps due to global warming, then I am the poster invertebrate for ocean acidificationOcean acidification is also due to global warming as a rise in ocean temperatures can cause seawater pH to drop and become more acidic.

So how does the ocean become more acidic?  Well the same carbon dioxide emissions that warm our atmosphere and cause global warming ultimately become absorbed by the oceans.  The oceans cover more than 70% of the planet.  Carbon dioxide dissolves in water and make it more acidic, like soda.  While the seawater in the ocean is not turning into Coke, a sprinkle here and there of acidic water can have devastating effects on ocean life.

Ocean acidification will directly affect me, my descendents, and my planktonic peers as my inner shell will dissolve as the water around me becomes more acidic. I will die. While I have a fairly short lifespan of a few months (to years if I escape being eaten!) to begin with, it is the new gap in the bottom of the food chain that will be troubling.  Fish won’t have anything to eat, and the larger animals that eat them will be hungry too.  Imagine if on land all the grass and insects suddenly got wiped out.  Then everything from birds, deer, and bears would be scrambling around for new food sources or face extinction.

So, what can you do to help?  What you are hopefully already doing to curb global warming: driving less, carpooling, taking public transportation, and exploring the use of alternative energies.  The 3 R’s help too: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.  Also support efforts to create Marine Protected Areas around the globe.  Less than 1% of the oceans are protected versus 12% of land being protected. Don’t forget to spread the word, as we can all make a difference by being informed!

UPDATE DECEMBER 2012: Scientists have found that pteropods are being affected by ocean acidification now, as opposed to a previous prediction of 2038. Link to article here