Sea Otters Doing Their Part to Battle Global Warming

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.


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Climate Scientists Provide Q&A Service to Better Inform the Media

November 17, 2010

The scientific community has made it clear global warming is occurring mainly as a result of human activities, and that it poses severe threats to human welfare.  Despite this more and more lawmakers seem to be finding it politically advantageous to be seen as climate change “skeptics” denying the findings of scientists.  Recently incumbent and newly-elected conservative members of Congress have been threatening to forcibly overturn the Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that greenhouse gases present a threat to human health, or to delay the agency’s ability to regulate global warming pollution.  Many, but not all political global warming deniers associate themselves with the ultra-conservative Tea Party movement.

Meanwhile many scientists seem reluctant to fight back, due largely to an understandable reluctance to enter politics.  For trained science professionals who have devoted their careers to objective study of the Earth, the idea of advocating for or against a political ideology is far from appealing.  At the same time, many would argue there could be no nobler use of science than to better inform the public about complex and important issues affecting society.  Thus scientists at the American Geophysical Union have arrived at a compromise: without taking political stances or advocating specific policies, the AGU has vowed to simply make it easier for media outlets that report to the public to get the correct science on climate change.

The AGU is the largest group of Earth and space science professionals in the world, boasting more than 58,000 members.  In order to make the findings of these scientists more accessible to the media, the AGU plans to establish an online Climate Q & A Service.  Though it has yet to get completely off the ground, the project mission states the service will, “enable high-quality climate science reporting by connecting the media with….expert climate scientists with quick turnaround and peer collaboration.”    

The Q & A Service is not a completely new idea: it was first launched last year to help inform reporters covering the Copenhagen negotiations on climate and global warming.  The AGU is now resurrecting the project, which is more important than ever at a time when sorting climate science from spin is increasingly difficult for the public.  By making the findings of scientists more readily accessible to the media, the AGU hopes to de-politicize the issue of how human activities impact the climate. 

Last week a Los Angeles Times story described the Q & A Service and similar initiatives as an attempt by climate scientists to “push back against congressional conservatives who have attacked the concept of global warming.”  But the AGU has since clarified such reports are inaccurate. 

Some individual scientists may choose to advocate for policies they feel are required to slow worldwide climate change.  Well-known NASA scientist James Hansen, for example, has long been outspoken about the need for policymakers to aggressively take in the challenge of curbing carbon emissions.  According to Hansen swift action is needed to avoid global warming “tipping points,” beyond which it will be impossible to restore the climate to a state hospitable for human civilizations.  Yet despite the outspokenness of individual climate scientists, the AGU as a nonpartisan scientific body seeks only to provide quality information about climate science to a wider public audience.  

Of course the success of the project will depend to a certain extent on the media’s willingness to seek out scientific information, and to accurately report on climate scientists’ findings.  But the Q & A service seems like a positive step that could help counter the mainstream press’ tendency to get complex scientific issues wrong.  With national and international debates raging over climate policy, it’s a timely moment for injecting a bit of cool-headed fact into hugely politicized debates arguments. 

Photo by Soham Banerjee