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Whales: Important Carbon Sinks

Much like the ocean, soil and forests, whales can help save humanity by sequestering and storing planet-heating carbon emissions, researchers say. And the IMF has even put a monetary value on them.

Humpback whale breaching out of the ocean

In a paper published this month in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, climate researchers suggest that whales are important, but often overlooked, carbon sinks. The enormous size of these marine mammals, which can reach 150 tons, is one important factor. And because whales live longer than most animals, some for more than 100 years, the paper said they could be “one of the largest stable living carbon pools” in the ocean. Even when they die, whale carcasses descend to the deepest parts of the sea and settle on the seafloor, trapping the carbon they’ve stored in their stout, protein-rich bodies.

Another reason why whales can be critical carbon sinks is, perhaps surprisingly, through their feces. Whale poop is rich in nutrients which can be taken up by phytoplankton - tiny organisms that suck up carbon dioxide as they grow. When they die, trillions of phytoplankton also sink at the bottom of the seafloor, taking tiny bits of carbon with them in their carcasses.

The process of carbon sequestration helps mitigate climate change, because it locks away carbon that otherwise would have warmed the planet somewhere else for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

In 2019, economists with the International Monetary Fund attempted to quantify the economic benefits of whales. The first-of-its-kind analysis looked at the market price of carbon dioxide, then calculated the whale’s total monetary value based on how much carbon it captures, in addition to other economic benefits like ecotourism. It put the average value of a great whale at $2 million.

Yet another reason whales are among the most remarkable creatures we've got - and another reason to protect them.



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