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Impact of whaling on the ocean carbon cycle

Tags: , , , , | Last updated: November 29, 2010

Last updated: November 29, 2010


When humans hunt and fish, they tend to favor animals that provide significant resources. In the oceans, whales, sharks and other large vertebrates have been targeted for centuries, and consequently their populations levels have fallen to a fraction of their natural levels.

This has a negative effect on species and ecosystems, and can also impact the climate: When whales and other large animals flourish in the ocean, they carry a substantial amount of carbon to the sea floor upon dying. Whales and other large marine vertebrates could effectively function as carbon credits. To better understand this process, researchers from the University of Maine, Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the University of British Columbia conducted a study, “The Impact of Whaling on the Ocean Carbon Cycle: Why Bigger Was Better.” The 2010 study was published in PLoS ONE, a peer-reviewed, open-access online publication.

The study’s key findings include:

  • Compared to pre-exploitation levels, the current populations of large baleen whales store 9.1 million fewer tons of carbon.
  • About 160,000 tons of carbon per year could be removed from the atmosphere if whale populations were restored to pre-industrial levels. This amount is equivalent to adding 843 hectares of forest.
  • Restoring the whale populations compares favorably with unproven schemes such as iron fertilization in removing carbon from the ocean surface.

The authors propose the development of better mechanisms to quantify the benefits of rebuilding whale populations and incentivize organizations to do so.

Tags: biodiversity, carbon, global warming, greenhouse gases, biodiversity, wildlife

Writer: | November 29, 2010

Citation: Pershing, Andrew J.; et al. "The Impact of Whaling on the Ocean Carbon Cycle: Why Bigger Was Better", PLoS ONE, 5(8): e12444. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0012444.

Analysis assignments

Read the study titled "The Impact of Whaling on the Ocean Carbon Cycle: Why Bigger Was Better."

  1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
  2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
  3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

Read the issue-related New York Times article titled "U.S. Leads New Bid to Phase Out Whale Hunting."

  1. If you were to rewrite the article based on knowledge of the study, what key changes would you make?

Newswriting assignments

  1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
  2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
  3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
  4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.

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