The average tree absorbs 22 kilograms of CO2 emissions per year. The amount of forested land in the world is roughly 10 billion acres, and with about 100-200 trees per acre, putting the amount of CO2 emissions absorbed by trees per year at about 22 to 44 billion tonnes. But even this is not enough to stop our rapidly rising temperatures. So what if there was some other organism that could keep carbon away from the atmosphere for centuries? It turns out there are: whales.
“Understanding the role of whales in the carbon cycle is a dynamic and emerging field that may benefit both marine conservation and climate-change strategies,” claim scientists in a new paper on how whales impact the carbon cycle.
A great whale absorbs 30 tonnes of CO2 per year on average (a pretty impressive number!) They sink to the bottom of the ocean after their death and remain there for centuries, successfully keeping the carbon stored in their body away from the atmosphere. But considering that six out of the thirteen great whale species are endangered, protecting the whale population is necessary in order to reap the full benefits of their carbon sequestration.
“Noise, competition for food, and chemical pollution are definitely limiting factors in the recovery of whale populations, and all of this is complicated today by climate change, which is altering the whale ecosystem at a very, very rapid rate,” says Robert Michaud, president of GREMM (Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals), to the Canada Post. It's sad that the very problem that whales could potentially help solve is the same one that is severely harming them.
So the question is; could whales save our planet? While more research still needs to be done, the answer is probably not on their own, according to scientists.
“Fundamentally, whales will not save our oceans or planet on their own, but they likely play a role in the larger system,” says one scientist not involved in the study to CNN. Although whales may not single handedly save our planet, they are definitely a part of the solution to mitigating climate change.