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  • Writer's pictureJean Sault

‘Save the Whales’ Means More Than You Think

The Unseen Guardians of Our Climate: Whales and Their Role in CO2 Regulation

In the vast, interconnected systems of our planet, every creature plays a part in maintaining the ecological balance. Among these, whales, with their majestic presence, play a pivotal role not just in the marine ecosystem but also in regulating the Earth's climate. Their contribution to carbon dioxide (CO2) management is a remarkable example of nature's intricate balance, highlighting the need for conservation efforts to protect these gentle giants.

Forests of the Sea and Land: A Dual Effort in Carbon Capture

The carbon cycle, a critical natural process, is sustained by various elements, including terrestrial and marine ecosystems. On land, forests, parks, and green spaces are vital carbon sinks, capturing CO2 through photosynthesis and storing carbon in plant biomass and soil. This not only helps in reducing the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere but also supports climate regulation. Similarly, the ocean, covering over 70% of our planet's surface, is a major carbon sink. Phytoplankton, microscopic plants in the ocean, perform a significant part of global photosynthesis, absorbing CO2 and producing oxygen. The health and productivity of these tiny plants are crucial for the ocean's ability to regulate CO2 levels.

Whales: The Ocean's Carbon Managers

Whales, the giants of the ocean, have a multifaceted role in managing CO2 levels. They accumulate carbon in their bodies during their lifetimes. It's estimated that large whales store approximately 33 tons of CO2 on average, considering that a significant portion of their body mass is carbon. When comparing this to trees, which absorb about 48 pounds (or 0.022 tons) of CO2 per year, the carbon storage capability of whales is immense.They also influence the ocean's carbon capture capabilities during their lifetime. Through their feeding habits, whales circulate nutrients throughout the water column. Their excretions release essential nutrients like iron and nitrogen, fostering the growth of phytoplankton. Since these organisms are instrumental in photosynthesis, whales indirectly boost the ocean's capacity to absorb CO2. This phenomenon, known as the "whale pump," demonstrates how whales enhance the marine ecosystem's health and its ability to function as a carbon sink.

The Impact of Beached Whales

The journey of a whale's contribution to carbon management doesn't always end in the deep sea. Occasionally, whales that die and wash ashore present a different scenario. Instead of contributing to deep-sea carbon sequestration, these beached carcasses release their CO2 back into the atmosphere through decomposition. If a whale's body washes ashore, the decomposition process releases CO2 and other greenhouse gases like methane into the atmosphere.

The Larger Picture

The intertwined roles of whales in the carbon cycle highlight the complexity and beauty of natural processes. Whales not only support marine biodiversity but also play a crucial part in mitigating climate change.  In recent years, there has been a disturbing increase in the number of dead whales washing up along the Atlantic coastline, from Maine to the Carolinas, where offshore wind projects are underway. This alarming trend has sparked a heated debate over the potential causes, with significant attention focused on the concurrent sonar blasting activities in these maritime regions.. These activities, part of the preparatory work for constructing offshore wind industrial complexes, have been pointed out by various environmental and conservation groups, such as Clean Ocean Action and SaveLBI among others, as a probable cause of this tragic phenomenon. They argue that the intense acoustic disturbances interfere with the whales' navigation and communication, leading to disorientation and, ultimately, death. Despite governmental agencies publicly and summarily dismissing the connection between sonar blasting and the whale strandings, the evidence presented by these organizations highlights a troubling correlation that demands further investigation. The increasing body of proof calls for a reassessment of the impact of offshore industrial activities on marine life, urging for a balance between renewable energy development and the preservation of oceanic ecosystems.

The Conundrum

Given the critical importance of whales in supporting marine biodiversity and their pivotal role in controlling the global climate through natural carbon sequestration processes, the question arises: why then do our federal and state governments allow the continued construction of offshore wind projects without pause for further investigation in spite of the multitude of requests, petitions and lawsuits? This conundrum underscores a pressing need to reconcile the pursuit of renewable energy sources with the imperative to preserve marine life and ecosystems. It prompts a broader discussion on finding sustainable solutions that do not compromise the well-being of vital species like whales, which are indispensable to the health of our planet's oceans and the broader global environment. So one must conclude that in order to successfully ‘save the planet’ we must take action now to ‘save the whales’.  Let's advocate for and support those who are working to save the whales, recognizing that in protecting these magnificent creatures, we are also safeguarding our future.


April 5, 2024

Jean Sault Birdsall

April 5, 2024

Jean Sault Birdsall



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