HONOLULU (KHON2) — Whales are wonderous water mammals. Majestic and mysterious, these creatures are often murdered by human hunters, military sound waves or merchant ships.

The University of Hawai’i has announced that a team of researchers has discovered that whales could hold the key to our planet’s future. Sounds like a Star Trek movie, right?

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University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa oceanographer Craig Smith was part of the team that recently published their findings that claims whales have the potential to sequester carbon in the deep sea to help fight climate change.

“Understanding the role of whales in the carbon cycle is a dynamic and emerging field that may benefit both marine conservation and climate-change strategies,” write the authors. “This will require interdisciplinary collaboration between marine ecologists, oceanographers, biogeochemists, carbon-cycle modelers and economists.”

Weighing up to 100 tons and living more than 100 years, whales have a hefty biomass that is composed mostly of carbon. These researchers believe that these creatures could be the largest living carbon pool pelagic ocean.

The pelagic ocean is part of the marine system that is responsible for storing 22 percent of the Earth’s total carbon.

“Their size and longevity allow whales to exert strong effects on the carbon cycle by storing carbon more effectively than small animals, ingesting extreme quantities of prey and producing large volumes of waste products,” write the authors, led by Heidi Pearson, a biologist from the University of Alaska Southeast.

“Considering that baleen whales have some of the longest migrations on the planet, they potentially influence nutrient dynamics and carbon cycling over ocean-basin scales,” added Pearson.

  • Great whales’ direct and indirect nutrient and carbon cycling pathways. (Photo/Pearson, et al. 2022 via University of Hawai'i)
  • A blue whale with a removable tag surfaces off the coast of California in January 2023. (Photo/Goldbogen Laboratory under NOAA/NMFS via University of Hawai'i)
  • A blue whale is seen surfacing in the waters of Hawai'i in January 2023. (Photo/Todd Cravens via Unsplash via University of Hawai'i)

The team said that whales consume nearly four percent of their body weight in krill and photosynthetic plankton, daily. If you are talking about a blue whale, then that means it will eat nearly 8,000 pounds.

It is in their excrement that they produce rich nutrients that nurture krill and plankton habitats. This increases photosynthesis and carbon storage.

Even in death, blue whales, which live up to 90 years, provide the planet with much needed carbon processing. When they die, they fall to the sea floor where their carbon stores are transferred as they decay. This “supplements the biological carbon pump, where nutrients and chemicals are exchanged between the ocean and the atmosphere through complex biogeochemical pathways,” according to the research.

Unfortunately, commercial hunting has degraded the global whale population by 81 percent, and the full scope of the consequences are yet to be understood.

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“Whale recovery has the potential for long-term, self-sustained enhancement of the ocean carbon sink,” the authors write. “The full carbon dioxide reduction role of great whales [and other organisms] will only be realized through robust conservation and management interventions that directly promote population increases.”