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The Way Whaling Accelerates Global Warming

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Humans are the root of many of the Earth’s recent health declines and instead of being focused on how to solve these issues, government officials are more focused on why their countries are no longer first world power. Rather than focusing on why they are falling the environment by not having a concise global warming strategy. Whales are by far one of the easiest global warming solutions, the simple solution is to stop killing them. The focus of this paper will be specifically on the history and effect that great baleen whales have on global warming. The baleen whales that will be discussed in this literature review and the whales that will have data are bowhead whales, all three right whales (North Atlantic, North Pacific, and Southern), blue whales, fin whales, minke whales, and humpback whales.

This topic has not been sufficiently researched in the past for three main reasons. The first being that after World War II, most whale populations had been exhausted due to massive campaigns of illegal whaling in both Japan and Russia. Consequently, a lower concentration of whale populations meant that ocean scientists could not study a natural pre-whaling population of whales thus being unable to realize the effect of great whales on marine ecosystems. Secondly, there are challenges in studying baleen whales such as monitoring performance and complicated loophole regulation laws in different countries. The third reason is due to limitations in monetary funds and physical factors such as not having the right equipment to deal with deep marine waters. Now, however, with modern technology and the rising numbers of certain great whales (a large majority of great whales are still endangered) the ecological importance of whales and the impact they have on global warming and marine ecosystems can now be assessed and determined through whale falls and whale pumps.

Whaling in this review will be considered as the dissemination of whale populations to create products for monetary gain and whales caught for traditional purposes (native traditions). A multitude of products were made by the carcasses of whales. For example, the meat and blubber of whales were exclusively used for the purpose of making oils, margarine, and it was considered a cooking delicacy. In addition spermaceti (a waxy substance) was used exclusively for making candles, ointments, and lubricants. The whales that were the most heavily affected were “gray; bowhead, Balaena mysticetus; humpback, Megaptera novaeangliae; blue, Balaenoptera musculus; fin, Balaenoptera physalus; sei, Balaenoptera borealis; and sperm, Physeter macrocephalus” . The reason being that these whales specifically are some of the largest whales which makes them especially vulnerable to be seen and they are also slower compared to smaller whales.

There are two periods in which whaling can be understood; the first being historical whaling and the later being modern whaling. Historical whaling starts with the earliest records of commercial whaling that date from approximately 1000 CE to the mid-1800s with the introduction of the explosive harpoon in 1860. Historical whalers were unable to acquire large amounts of whales due to boats being reliant on sails and harpoons being man-powered. This; however, all changed in the 19th century when an increased demand for whale oil spurred the development of mechanical and rapid whaling techniques such as motorized catcher boats. The existence of modern catcher boats removed any advantage a whale might have had over a whaling ship because they could no longer out swim these fast boats. Thus the start of modern whaling which spurs from the 20th century till today. These new modern techniques paved the way for the expansion of whaling business geographically as well. Whalers could now catch whales at a higher rate and follow the migration patterns of whales to ensure maximum success. In 1904 the antarctic grounds were opened for whalers and 60 years after they killed more than 2 million whales in the Southern Hemisphere.

While there was an introduction of a temporary ban on whaling due to the overexploitation of certain whales in 1982 by the International Whaling Commission, this did nothing to cease the drops in whales populations. Baker and Palumbi 1994 argue that reason this moratorium did not work because there is an inadequate system of monitoring who was catching, what whales they were catching, and if they were doing it legally or not. This commission was also only invented for the sole purpose of protecting whaling industries and not whales. An estimate of the populations before whaling can now be determined. Roman, J. and Palumbi 2003 made a study focused on the pre whaling populations of humpback, fin, and minke whales using the genetic diversity of North Atlantic whales through mitochondrial DNA sequencing. It was concluded that in pre-whaling eras there were nearly 240,000 humpback, 360,000 fin, and 265,000 minke whales in the North Atlantic which outstanding when compared to the now staggering populations which are 10,000 humpback, 56,000 fin, and 149,000 minke whales. Using similar methods, the Alter et al. 2007 group and Rocha et al group were able to determine that there are three to five times fewer grey whales today than there was in pre-whaling times and Southern ocean blue whales are estimated to be “less than 1% of their pre-whaling numbers”. Nonetheless, there was no way of monitoring the populations of whales being decimated before DNA sequencing which lead to irreversible catastrophic environmental effects that are described in the following paragraphs.

Global warming through human involvement has become a leading threat to mammals. While mammals in the past have survived the effects of climate change, they have never experienced a rapid change in the temperature like this. This added to habitat destruction is adding unnecessary stress on mammals; with some mammalian population’s going so far in the decline that they become extinct. Global warming is caused by a multitude of different reasons. The main and what will be focused on in this article is the emission of greenhouse gasses specifically carbon dioxide emissions. Of all the greenhouse gasses carbon dioxide accounts for 80% emissions that contribute to global warming. If only there was a mammal large enough to decrease the amount of atmospheric carbon in the atmosphere while also acting as an ecosystem engineer..oh wait there is whales. There are two main ways great whales help reduce the effect of global warming in this review; these include whale falls and whale pumps.

Great whales live for many decades with oldest baleen whale species having a lifespan of nearly 200 years. According to Pershing et al. 2010, the long lifespans of these great whales accumulate a large amount of carbon that remains out of the atmosphere for the remainder of the whale’s life. When whales expire they become the largest amount of waste to fall from the ocean surface and because they are negatively buoyant; due to lipids and proteins, upon death, they sink to the ocean floor. In addition, whales are some of the biggest mammals alive on the planet today with the largest the Antarctic blue whale population being nearly thirty meters in length. When these large mammals sink to the ocean floor they also take with them a large amount of carbon dioxide this is called whale falls. To illustrate this “a 40‐ton gray whale, for instance, contains approximately 2 million g carbon, which is equivalent to more than 2000 years of background carbon flux” which is then taken directly to the ocean floor rather than being dissolved into the atmosphere. In addition these great whale cacaracasses also provide habitat and food to smaller marine organism in the deeper parts of the sea thus boosting the ecosystem of that region.

As a result by transferring carbon out of the atmosphere and into nutrient-poor areas in the deep ocean, great whales are both combating global warming and contributing to the dispersal of deep-sea fauna. Based on studies done by Pershing et al. 2010 it is estimated that whales currently transfer 190,000 tons of carbon a year through whale falls and if whales were to be restored to their pre-whaling numbers then there would be a decrease of carbon comparable to projects that want to artificially add iron to the ocean floors. In the same article, it specifically states that if Blue whales were to be restored to their pre-whaling number in the Southern hemisphere then there would be a removal of nearly ‘70,000 tons of carbon a year’ due to whale pumping. In addition, if all whale populations would recover from their pre-whaling eras they there would be an extra removal of 160,000 tons a year which would be the same as preserving “843 hectares of forest each year”.

Whale pumping is when great whales release fecal plumes and urine into their surrounding areas. These nutrients are vital to the understanding of how whale pumps decrease carbon dioxide through phytoplankton (microscopic marine algae) blooms. To understand how whale pumping effects Phytoplankton, one must first understand the function of Phytoplankton. The growth of Phytoplankton is controlled by three main factors: water, light, and inorganic solutes such as Iron and Nitrogen. Thus Phytoplankton live in a complex area between the water surface (to reach sunlight) and in the deep ocean (to easily retrieve inorganic solutes). Phytoplankton ecosystems play a central role in the regulation of carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. In simple terms, photosynthesis is when a plant uses carbon dioxide to reintroduce oxygen into its surrounding area. Phytoplankton consumes most of the atmospheric CO2 in the ocean and can trap carbon for centuries in deep ocean levels. Reductions in photosynthetic efficiency often accompany nutrient limitation hence the need for whale pumps.

Whale pumps allow for the transportation of important nutrients to different levels of the ocean specifically in the photic zone (surface layer of the ocean that receives light from the sun), the thermocline (layer between warm water and cold deep water), and the ocean’s surface. Studies done by Roman and Estes 2014 in the Gulf of Maine show that marine mammals, deliver a substantial amount of nitrogen to the thermocline and the photic zone parts of the ocean through feeding in that area. The surface of the ocean is also affected by nitrogen due to whales introducing nitrogen through defecation (whale pulping). An increase in nitrogen makes the surface water becomes richer in ammonium which is hypothesized to enhance the productivity of plankton in the area by increasing photosynthesis. Diving marine mammals are rich in iron due to their elevated myoglobin levels and need to get their iron through their diet. Considering that whales feed on prey in the deeper parts of the ocean and excrement in the surface area, it’s no surprise that studies have found that great whales like sperm whales transport iron from the deep ocean to the photic zone. Since whales hardly use their dietary Iron, their fecal matter has a high concentration (at least 10 million times greater than ambient levels) of Iron. In other words, increased levels of nitrogen and increased concentration of iron would lead to the proper sinking of phytoplankton which could result in the “removal of at least 200,000 tons of carbon a year from the atmosphere to the deep ocean”.

Nevertheless, the termination of atmospheric carbon dioxide can not occur with the current staggeringly low population of whales due to a majority of marine systems in the north lacking nitrogen and the marine ecosystems in the southern ocean’s being limited because of a finite amount of iron available in the ocean waters. Recovering whales to their pre-whaling populations as a result would increase in the amount of iron and phytoplankton in the ocean which would then decrease the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  

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