Impact of whaling on the ocean carbon cycle
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 while the international ban on whaling has helped some species recover in select areas, many populations 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 research was published in 2010 in PLoS ONE, a peer-reviewed, open-access online publication.
The 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.
Keywords: biodiversity, carbon, global warming, greenhouse gases, biodiversity, wildlife
Read the issue-related New York Times article titled "Should Fin Whales Be a Source of Wonder or Meat?"
- What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?
Read the full study titled "The Impact of Whaling on the Ocean Carbon Cycle: Why Bigger Was Better."
- What are the study's key technical terms? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- 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?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
- Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
- Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?