The Science of Sustainability

Sea Otters v. Climate Change

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When people talk about sea otters, the words “cute,” “cuddly,” and “curious” often come to mind. But now you can add another descriptor to that list — climate change fighters.

Along the West Coast these aquatic acrobats have become a surprising vanguard in the fight to strike at the root cause of climate change trends. And their heartwarming tale illustrates a much larger story about the ways wildlife conservation can also combat climate change.

Kelp

Kelp is an efficient absorber of CO2. Photo courtesy of NOAA's National Ocean Service.

Here’s how otters do it.

Climate change is the result of a buildup of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. One of the most significant contributors to this phenomenon is carbon dioxide (CO2), a gas emitted by coal-burning power plants and automobiles, among other things.

Kelp forests, where otters hang out, are some of the most efficient absorbers of carbon dioxide known. Like any land-based forest, kelp forests sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, transforming it into the energy they need to build their leafy structure.

But these kelp forests are at risk from sea urchins: small, spiky marine animals that love munching on kelp. With no predators around, sea urchin populations can multiply, forming herds that sweep across the ocean floor devouring entire stands of kelp.

Fortunately, sea otters have an appetite for urchins. The otters help keep urchin populations in check, allowing kelp to flourish and capture more CO2. According to a recent study, otter-supported kelp forests can absorb up to 12 times more CO2 from the atmosphere than if they were just left to the urchins.

Urchins

Urchins along the seafloor. Photo courtesy of tinatinatinatinatina.

For a time, otters were not around to eat urchins. Sea otters were nearly hunted to extinction during the fur trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. But through conservation efforts, sea otters have been restored to much of their historic range in North America.

Sea otters play a small role in mitigating global climate change, but their impact points to a larger lesson: wildlife conservation can save vegetation needed to reduce CO2. Whether it is pumas, jaguars, and eagles in the forests of Venezuela that keep understory browsers in check, grey wolves keeping willow-munching elk on their toes in Yellowstone National Park, or otters guarding kelp along the coast, these non-human neighbors can foster plant growth that leads to more carbon capture.

And with sea otters, the effort to mitigate climate change through top predators has never been so adorable.

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Category: Biodiversity, Climate, Video, Water

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Michael James Werner

About the Author ()

Michael Werner is an award-winning independent filmmaker, photographer and writer. His work has been featured in/by: The PBS NewsHour, HBO Films, The Associated Press, Earthfix, Oregon Field Guide, KCTS-9 Seattle, Voice of America TV, The World Channel, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Cannes International Film Festival. In addition he is a former faculty member at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and holds a master’s degree in narrative journalism. In 2010 he spent five weeks exploring the Democratic Republic of the Congo for a documentary project and developed an appreciation for the taste of curried caterpillars.
  • Lindsey Hoshaw

    What an incredible video. I learned a ton and had no idea that otters were relocated from Alaska to preserve the population in the Pacific Northwest. Great visuals, especially the underwater footage. Kudos to a compelling story well-told.

  • Ina Mitchell

    This is another example of the need for balance between predator and prey in nature.
    I love sea otters!

  • Grandma_Jody

    What's really cool is my husband and I were there at La Push in the early 1970s when the transplanted sea otters from Alaska were released by the Game Dept into the water!

  • PRC

    Beautiful story. I love otters. I shared it. I am very uncomfortable with spinning it as a "climate change victory". We DID speed the recovery of the otters following our thoughtless genocide. I'd call that atonement or making amends. I think, however, that when it comes to addressing our penchant for destruction, we need to keep our eye firmly on "our other hand"–the hand that is still actively engaged in a lifestyle that is systematically degrading the global ecosystem in 5 or 10 different ways (deforestation, toxins, soil erosion, water mining, CO2, fish over harvest, etc, etc..). The otter recover required no self discipline, and no sacrifice. It was easy. It was a technical fix. Ecosystem restoration requires a cultural shift. I only hope stories like this help us with that shift.

  • DaveC1953

    It's always interesting to see a "rebound" story. This one also captures the value sea otters play in the survival of other species. Good job, well done!

  • hupdiggs

    great piece! so supple, watery and lush. wonderful info and images.

  • Jason Black

    Great use of a charismatic critter to tell an important story about our ecosystems. The more we can bring stories like this into the spotlight, the harder it will be to ignore "the other hand" PRC mentions below. Bravo.

  • Glen Porter

    What happens to the CO2 after it has been sequestered in living kelp? The kelp doesn't live forever. Won't the CO2 just be released again as the dead kelp decomposes?

    • Joanna Runnells

      I had the same thought. A lot of kelp grows and dies annually…so what's the net CO2 benefit?