Science

How Much Should a Whale Cost? How Whales Control Carbon and Combat Climate Change

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Transcript:

Allow me to start this video by admitting my biases: I fucking love whales. I think if you take them as a whole they are in the top 5 animals on Earth, easily. Like, it would be whales, cephalopods, corvids, jellyfish, and I guess primates would eke their way in there thanks to humans being the only species to invent tacos. But honestly I bet the only reason whales didn’t invent tacos is because tacos taste like trash when they’re underwater. I bet whales came up with some bomb-ass food that is just as good as tacos but can be munched underwater and the only reason we don’t know about it is because they don’t want us to know about it. It’s just for them.

So I love whales because they’re amazing — they have an intelligence that scientists are only just starting to try to understand, they include the largest animals on our planet, and just seeing them in their natural habitat is seriously enough to bring me to tears. I went snorkeling at Molokini Crater this year and some humpbacks got so close to our raft we had to cut the engines and hope they didn’t decide to flip us over for fun. It was incredible.

I already knew that whales are an essential part of our environment, but this week I learned a new fact that completely blew me away because I had never even considered it before. It turns out, whales are extremely good at removing carbon from the atmosphere.

Usually you think of trees as being the big way to combat carbon, but whales are actually even better at it, for a lot of reasons. The biggest issue is that whales encourage the growth of phytoplankton, tiny oceanic plants that float around near the surface. Like trees, they take in carbon and release oxygen, and in fact are responsible for 50-85% of the oxygen in our atmosphere. But it’s hard for phytoplankton to grow in many places — in warmer water, they need nitrogen and phosphorus, which are quite rare, and in colder water they need iron. Whales bring those nutrients from the sea depths up to the surface where the phytoplankton can take advantage of it. They do that in two ways: one, by diving and then zooming back up to the surface, and two, by shitting everywhere. Whale poop is, it turns out, the perfect fertilizer for phytoplankton, so sure enough scientists have observed the fact that it tends to grow along the migratory routes of whales.

So whales help trap carbon by stimulating the growth of phytoplankton, but they also do it by being absolute massive motherfuckers. Whales eat and eat and eat, trapping the carbon in the things they’re eating. They do poop some out, but that carbon sinks to the bottom of the sea, where it can stay for hundreds of years. That’s also what happens to whales when they die natural deaths after many decades — they sink, taking all the carbon they’ve trapped all their lives down with them, where the carbon remains trapped at the seafloor for millions of years to come.

It’s exactly what some technologists want to do to solve the problem of carbon in our atmosphere. They say, “Let’s come up with a way to trap the carbon in the air and then put it deep underground where it can’t cause climate change anymore.” Well, whales do that naturally. No need to build any robots or argue with any world governments on where we’re going to shove all this carbon — all we have to do is encourage the continued repopulation of whales. If we lose all the whales, we’re absolutely fucked, which was totally predicted in that one Star Trek movie. You know, the only good one. 

Of course, whales can’t drop to the sea floor with all that delicious carbon if they’re being hunted and killed by humans. Not only did hunting whales fuck up our environment by removing way too many important organisms from the ecosystem, thus depleting the world’s phytoplankton, but it also released a load of extra carbon into the atmosphere by not letting the whales sink their carbon to teh sea floor. Andrew Pershing, a biologist at University of Maine, calculated that whaling released about 110 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere in the past century, the same as if we cut down all the trees in New England. That’s just from the lack of dead whales on the bottom of the sea, not counting their effect on phytoplankton or the carbon required to power the ships to catch them. That was back in 2010, and Pershing suggested that we come up with carbon credits specifically for protecting whales and other animals that hold the bulk of marine vertebrate carbon.

Well, this month some economists took Pershing’s idea to the next level. Researchers at the International Monetary Fund calculated the actual cost of a great whale, considering the current going rate of carbon dioxide, the amount of carbon the average whale captures, and the amount each whale contributes to ecotourism and fishery populations. They came to a “conservative” figure of about $2 million per whale. Compare that to how much a whale fetches on the market for its meat: about $50,000. In monetary terms, then, a whale is worth about 40x more alive than dead.

It is, of course, really gross that we even need to consider how much money a whale is worth, considering that money is just some stupid bullshit humans made up to torture ourselves. A whale is priceless. But, we live in a society, and that society is capitalist, so we cannot make important decisions about things until we have assigned things a monetary worth. 

The economists write that “if whales were allowed to return to their pre-whaling numbers—capturing 1.7 billion tons of CO2 annually—it would be worth about $13 per person a year to subsidize these whales’ CO2 sequestration efforts.” That would be worth it to me, personally, considering that on average each American spent on average $3,456 to fund the military in 2017. The researchers are pushing for the 190 signers of the Paris Agreement pledge to spend this money on whale conservation — it’s both economical and would go a long way toward slowing down climate change. Of course, I should point out that that’s about to be 189 signers of the Paris Agreement, since Donald Trump has just confirmed that he’s going to pull the US out of it. But hey, maybe Congress will impeach him before he has the chance, or he’ll just get distracted by something shiny. Like a nice, shiny impeachment. One can dream.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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