Global warming: Otters, kelp and CO2

A kelp forest. Photo via Wikipedia and the Creative Commons.

Managing for intact ecosystems could help mitigate greenhouse gas impacts

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY —Maintaining healthy sea otter populations could put a dent in the seemingly unstoppable build-up of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, according to a pair of  UC Santa Cruz researchers.

Of course, the new study doesn’t suggest that otters alone can stem the tide of global warming, but shows how maintaining functional natural ecosystems could play a role in mitigating the effects of greenhouse gases.

Here’s how it works: Otters control sea urchin populations. Sea urchins eat kelp, and fast-growing kelp is very efficient at absorbing CO2. After studying 40 years of data on otters and kelp bloom from Vancouver Island to the western edge of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, the researchers found that spreading kelp can absorb as much as 12 times the amount of CO2 from the atmosphere than if it were subject to ravenous sea urchins.

Otters “undoubtedly have a strong influence” on the cycle of CO2 storage, Chris Wilmers and James Estes wrote in a paper published inline in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

“It is significant because it shows that animals can have a big influence on the carbon cycle,” said Wilmers, assistant professor of environmental studies.

Comparing kelp density with otters and kelp density without otters, they found that “sea otters have a positive indirect effect on kelp biomass by preying on sea urchins, a kelp grazer.” When otters are around, sea urchins hide in crevices and eat kelp scraps. With no otters around, sea urchins graze voraciously on living kelp.

Wilmers and Estes acknowledge that a spreading otter population won’t solve the problem of higher CO2 in the atmosphere but argue that the restoration and protection of otters is an example how managing animal populations can affect ecosystems abilities to sequester carbon.

“Right now, all the climate change models and proposed methods of sequestering carbon ignore animals,” Wilmers said. “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,” he said.

Mitigating increased CO2 in the atmosphere is a pressing issue in global environmental conservation with many obstacles and no easy solutions, the authors wrote. They note that markets have been established in Europe and the United States to trade carbon credits and thus inject an economic incentive into either reducing CO2 output or increasing CO2 sequestration.

They estimate that the CO2 removed from the atmosphere via the otter-kelp link could be worth between $205 million and $408 million on the European Carbon Exchange.

“An alluring idea,” they write, would be to sell the carbon indirectly sequestered by the sea otter protected kelp forest “as a way to pay for their reintroduction and management or to compensate losses to shell fisheries from sea otter predation.”

Wilmers and Estes were joined by Matthew Edwards, San Diego State University; Kristin L. Laidre, University of Washington; and Brenda Konar, University of Alaska.

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13 thoughts on “Global warming: Otters, kelp and CO2

  1. Its time to have the Adm. Brand or tag all Sea Utters so they can get the CREDITS from the Exchange,, Where can I buy a Sea Otter?

  2. Why oh why have our educated experts over looked the most obvious reason for our ice in the Arctic to melt? Man has always tried to control the weather but he has failed miserably as the BIG GUY upstairs (GOD) controls it. The SUN is the culprit so obviously they have overlooked it as Politicians (Gore) are trying so hard to make some big bucks. Heat melts ice and the only thing up there that is causing it is the SUN. I’m an old man and I think I have lots of Wisdom. Younger people will overlook the obvious sometimes. As long as I remember in school they have talked about SUN Spots and what they do to the weather and radio waves. Let’s get off this Carbon Bit on Global Warming and study where it’s at and then forget it. Like a hurricane we’re not going to make it go away. Let’s work on problems that are solvable.

    • Forget the ice,,,,,,,that is a result of something else………called temperature….and what controls our temperature……THE SUN……..THE LARGEST BODY near us. With all the SUN activities all the time I can’t believe you so called experts have overlooked it. Why??? Ever look at what the Cap & Trade will cost?????? Who will benefit????? Politicians!!!!!!!!!! Get smart and look and study the most obvious reason for all this weather then forget it as there is nothing you can do about it. Next thing you will say you can control hurricanes or tornados. Time will prove it doesn’t take a Rocket Scientist to figure this out. As soon as you dudes wake up and realize who really runs this show on earth you can move on to something you can do something about, like poverty, wars, teaching people how important it is to think properly and believe in GOD and Jesus so we can all get along.



    Marlin Covert
    Your story doesn’t hold water…..if you believe carbon is causing the ice to melt now……we didn’t have a carbon problem 1500 years ago. When are you people going to get smart and look at what the sun does to weather? These sunspots and flares or what ever they are is definitely what is controlling our weather. Just because Al Gore dreamt up this theory that has tons of flaws and lie’s in it doesn’t prove one thing. God made this earth to take care of problems that arise from catastrophes that happen. With all the extra carbon the temperature has not risen significantly, and where are all these islands that are disappearing?

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