Sea otters may be nature’s little secret weapon for battling the rise of carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere and, in turn, slowing down the effects of global warming. According to a new study out of the University of California, Santa Cruz, the mammals play a big part in allowing quantities of kelp blooms to amass and survive in open water. These kelp blooms help to reduce CO2 levels by absorbing the compound through photosynthesis and releasing oxygen back into the atmosphere.
And it all comes down to the sea otter diet: Sea urchins, a delicacy most preferred by the otters, feed voraciously off of live kelp forests. Because sea otters help to keep populations of sea urchins at bay, kelp is given a greater chance to thrive. In order to get a better idea about the impact sea otters have on kelp forests, researchers from UCSC took a look at 40 years of data concerning otter activity and kelp blooms in an area spanning from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands to Canada’s Vancouver Island.
After examining the date, the researchers found that where sea otters were most populous sea urchins were less prevalent and kelp was better able to bloom. Although it is an indirect effect, it is important one nonetheless. Kelp forests where sea otters frequent are able to absorb up to 12 times more carbon dioxide then in areas with less of the furry animals. What is more, researchers also discovered that CO2 absorbed in otter-kelp areas could be worth anywhere between $205 million and $408 million on the European Carbon Exchange.
Funded by both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the full scientific report has been published in the newest (September 7) edition of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
Chris Wilmers, an assistant professor at UCSC believes that, without a doubt, this information is significant “because it shows that animals can have a big influence on the carbon cycle.” While researchers acknowledge the largeness of this finding, it is still very safe to say that sea otters will not singlehandedly balance the atmosphere’s oxygen to carbon dioxide ratio. But knowing that animals like the sea otter have a way of affecting the greater environment can lead to greater protection of animal species around the world. “If ecologists can get a better handle on what these impacts are, there might be opportunities for win-win conservation scenarios, whereby animal species are protected or enhanced, and carbon gets sequestered,” said Wilmers.
The days of global warming speculation are over; now, the knowledge that CO2 levels are becoming much too high is a pressing issue all around the world. This new information has provided us with a new way at looking at the problem and into ways to help battle it. “Right now, all the climate change models and proposed methods of sequestering carbon ignore animals,” explained Wilmers. Climate change can no longer be ignored; and the animals that are affected by it can no longer either.
Photo Credit: soundwaves.usgs.gov/2006/02/research.html