Sea otters, urchins, kelp help combat climate change

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With the rising rate of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, and rising concerns about climate change, some effort is being made to own up to the fact that since we are the ones that put the excess CO2 there, we need to be the ones to remove it. Well, another species — sea otters — has been found doing their part to help and a new study has shown that they are helping more than we previously thought.

The links between sea urchins, sea otters, kelp forests and carbon dioxide has been known for some time now. Sea urchins feed ravenously on kelp forests when their populations go unchecked. Sea otters consider sea urchins to be a favourite food, and happily dwindle their populations, which allows the kelp forests to thrive. Thriving kelp forests are very good at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

After studying 40 years worth of data involving kelp forest densities, both with and without otters, University of California Santa Cruz professors Chris Wilmers and James Estes added an extra link to the chain. Thriving, spreading kelp forests can absorb up to 12 times more carbon dioxide than kelp forests being fed upon by sea urchins.

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There aren't any calls for mass otter-breeding programs or plans to decimate sea urchin populations, though. The research of Wilmers and Estes simply shows how animal populations can benefit an ecosystem's ability to sequester carbon.

"Right now, all the climate change models and proposed methods of sequestering carbon ignore animals," Wilmers said, according to Science Daily. "But animals the world over, working in different ways to influence the carbon cycle, might actually have a large impact. If ecologists can get a better handle on what these impacts are, there might be opportunities for win-win conservation scenarios, whereby animal species are protected or enhanced, and carbon gets sequestered."

With the carbon sequestered from this otter-kelp link having an estimated value of $200 million to $400 million on the European Climate Exchange, Wilmers and Estes see that money going a long way towards reintroducing and protecting otters, as well as reimbursing shell fisheries for profit losses due to sea otters.

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