Thursday, October 14, 2010

Save the Whales, Save our Earth

Photo: Sid Perkins

The subject of whaling is predominantly viewed as an issue of animal rights more than anything else. However, recent studies show that whales are more important than once thought to be. Whales are beautiful mammals that swim through the oceans, but have you ever wondered what further purpose they have other than for great whale watching adventures? Have you ever stopped to think how important whales actually are when it comes to their native environment? Sadly, they are hunted for their value in meat. Now, we are seeing them in a new light so to speak in regards to their value to maintaining atmospheric conditions. When it comes to regulating levels of atmospheric CO2 the sperm whales of the Southern Ocean play an important role.

The Southern Ocean is known to be limited in its supply of iron. Iron is an important nutrient in keeping the productivity and life of the deep ocean alive. The limited iron label of the Southern Ocean causes this specific area to be one of high appealing nature for investigations and studies. A recent investigation conducted in the Southern Oceans in areas of high sperm whale populations suggests that marine animal respiration returns carbon to the atmosphere. What does this mean? The normal processes of Ocean respiration are severely disturbed resulting in altered food-web structures, as well as decreasing carbon exports to the deep ocean. Carbon exports to the deep ocean are necessary in keeping the progression of ocean sustainability in action. This affects society because if carbon is not regularly removed from the atmosphere, it will begin to build up and act in cohesion with other greenhouse gases. This is a leading cause of global warming and climate change. The investigation as explained in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B journal was to compare carbon export with the amount of carbon respired by the native sperm whales. The intention was to determine whether sperm whales act as net sinks, or sources of carbon to the atmosphere. The focus was put on iron as the nutrient because the addition of iron to the iron limited waters is vital to maintain high levels of productivity as well as recycling carbon (both of which are essential in maintaining proper ocean fundamentals).

An interesting examination made during the investigation was that industrial whaling, which is often a practice overlooked, is a tremendous cause of excess carbon remaining in the atmosphere. How you may ask? The 12 000 sperm whales found in the Southern Ocean defecate roughly 50 tonnes of iron annually. 36 tonnes of which remain in the upper level of the ocean which is then exported to the deeper ocean. After comparing carbon export with carbon respired it was determined that sperm whales in the Southern Ocean act as a carbon sink. This means they remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they add through respiration. Southern Ocean sperm whales represent only 3% of the global sperm whale population, but nonetheless sperm whales are significantly imperative in the process of iron fertilization of the oceans and carbon respiration.

It is visibly apparent that sperm whales play important roles in maintaining suitable conditions for Southern Ocean processes to take place to regulate levels of atmospheric CO2. Industrial whaling is altering whale populations considerably, which consequently affects our atmospheric levels of CO2. Atmospheric related problems are important in society because as stewards of the earth, we are responsible to take care of it. One thing everyone can do it draw attention to the importance of whales, and how they directly impact our environment. Whaling is a severe crime and at the end of the day is contributing to the depletion of our atmosphere.

Journal Article:
Laverly, T., Roudnew, B., Gill, P., Serymour, J., Seuront, L., Johnson, G., Mitchell, J., and Smetacek, V. 2010. Iron defecation by sperm whales stimulates carbon export in the Southern Ocean. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 277(1699): 3527-3531.

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