Whales are more Important to Climate Change than Donald Trump.

Donald Trump has pulled the USA out of the Paris Climate accord. And I don’t think this matters all that much. For a start, the USA’s emissions are falling. Mostly this is because coal is being replaced by Natural Gas, but also because people are driving less, in smaller vehicles with ever more efficient engines. The motors driving the west’s steady fall in carbon emissions are economic and technological, not political.
Next to the steady decline in carbon emissions from the west, is set a vast increase in emissions from Asia. This represents a shift from billions of people using no net carbon energy, tending crops using animal muscle and burning biomass (and occasionally starving to death) Just a few decades ago, to meeting an Indian chap who was on holiday in Stockholm with his family, and chatting about cricket while we tried to decipher the train times. The rise of a middle class in India and China is a huge flowering of human potential, even if it comes with soluble environmental problems.
As a result of worldwide economic development, the level of Co2 in the atmosphere is rising, and this is changing the climate. Reducing carbon emissions is a noble aim, but it must not get in the way of developing economies’ economic growth. Fortunately, the solution is already with us. Renewable technology is improving. Cars are getting more efficient, and perhaps moving away from fossil fuel (at least directly). And this process will happen in India and China more quickly than it did in the west because adopting what will be soon proven and cheap technology will enable them to miss whole generations of polluting technologies.


Which brings us to the great cetaceans. The southern ocean is the world’s biggest habitat, with the world’s shortest food chain, at the top of which sits the largest animal that has ever existed on earth. The food chain runs like this: Phytoplankton bloom, and are eaten by zooplankton, which are eaten by fish larvae and krill, which are eaten buy just about everything else. The biggest eaters of krill are the baleen whales the biggest of which turn five tons of Krill into iron-rich turds every day. Sperm whales meanwhile are diving to the abyssal deep, turning several tons of squid (including another of my favourite species, Architeuthis dux)  into iron-rich scat and in doing so, moving nutrients from the deep to the surface.

The limiting nutrient at the bottom of the food-chain is iron, so whale faeces fertilise the ocean, and enable more phytoplankton to grow which absorb Co2 from  the air, much of which falls to the bottom of the ocean as marine snow, and eventually become rock. But we killed the whales, and when we stopped doing so, they didn’t recover as quickly as we hoped. We didn’t just kill the apex predators, in doing so, humanity reduced the Southern ocean’s ecosystem’s capacity to create life, and absorb Carbon. The southern ocean may have settled at a lower equilibrium of Iron circulation. The Atlantic on the other hand, which gets tons of Iron from the African deserts every time the wind blows, has seen whale stocks recover better.

Which is why I want to see more research into Iron seeding the ocean, which may give a leg up to Balaenoptera musculus, as well as possibly solving climate change. Climate change is a problem. But while Trump’s petulant gesture doesn’t help us solve it, nor does it make the problem all that much harder. Politicians simply matter less than a whale taking a dump.

9 replies
  1. Christopher Adshead
    Christopher Adshead says:

    This touches on a very important topic. If humans stopped destroying ecosystems the world over the world would be able to recover from climate change a lot faster. Thankfully progress is being made in some areas but not enough.

    I do agree with this blog post that Trump pulling out of the Paris agreement is not the end of the world. The treaty (along with many international agreements) was non-binding and just a gesture rather than a solution to solve a problem.

    Reply
  2. Ulisse Di Bartolomei
    Ulisse Di Bartolomei says:

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    Reply
  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    The thing with iron seeding, and other geo-engineering fixes, is their inefficiency. The atmosphere is less than 0.1% carbon dioxide; and about 10 miles high. Sea-surface carbon is about 2 moles (2 in every million million million million molecules). The effort and expense required to offset current emissions – let alone decrease the CO2 stock – is immense. It's so much cheaper and easier to reduce CO2 emissions.

    Reply
  4. Malcolm Bracken
    Malcolm Bracken says:

    Thanks Anon, for your well-thought out comment. I agree, insofar as we just don't know. Carbon is the limiting factor in most plant growth so global warming may have an effect of greater crop yields. But in the Southern ocean, it's iron and Iron (dust, soil, dirt will do) is CHEAP and spreading it on the ocean is EASY and so we can change equilibria with a few ships and some spoil from an iron ore mine. It potentially offers us a waste disposal solution too. And there's the feedback loop: perhaps we can just kickstart an ecosystem to run permanently at a higher equilibrium. I come at this as a zoologist more than a climatologist.

    Reply
  5. BB-Idaho
    BB-Idaho says:

    The current majority of the three US branches of government bow to the climate change
    deniers and derive political contributions from energy companies. However, as noted above,
    coal use has continued to decline due to cheap natural gas. Another often overlooked factor is that many US businesses are stepping up, realizing an obligation to preserve the environment and led by forward thinking leaders. Still, while the current administration works at dismantling
    environmental regulations and climate research, the Chinese are initiating huge solar and
    wind power sectors in an attempt to clear their urban centers of terrible smog.

    Reply

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