Last week, President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement. A watershed of negative consequences are no doubt to follow the latest of Trump’s bad decisions; meanwhile science, and those who believe in it, marches forward. A newly discovered side effect of global warming involves the size of blue whales and the acidification of seawater.
Throughout the world’s oceans, subtle but important chemical changes are happening. Ocean water absorbs about a quarter of the CO2 that is released into the air. Humankind’s agricultural and industrial habits have caused an increase in carbon dioxide production which means CO2 levels in the ocean have also increased. Oceans removing some of the greenhouse gases from our atmosphere was once seen as a good thing, but it’s now understood that rising carbon dioxide levels in the ocean are causing ocean acidification, a change in the chemistry of seawater which effects the production of ocean vegetation and all the sea life that depends on it.
Blue Whales and Ocean Acidification
The Blue Whale is the largest species on Earth—or in the sea as the case may be. A Blue can reach over 100-feet in length (that’s longer than two school buses placed end-to-end) and weigh hundreds of thousands of pounds. In an article published in Popular Science, the curator of marine mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Nick Pyenson, reports that baleen whales, a category that includes Blue whales, have a dense fossil record that allows researchers to track the growth and habits of these gigantic creatures. Baleen whales are distinguished by the screen of cartilage—or baleen—that hangs from the roof of their mouth and is used to filter food out of the water.
It’s believed baleen whales experienced a growth spurt about 4.5 million years ago. The size shift didn’t involve only Blue whales, but many species of baleens. This event corresponds with the beginning of the Ice Age when the change in climate also changed the patterns by which the oceans circulated. This, in turn, changed the feeding grounds of the giant water creatures. Biological “hot spots” where nutritious zooplankton concentrated would have forced whales to travel thousands of miles to reach feeding grounds. Only the biggest, strongest whales would have survived these journeys and lived to reproduce. Fortunately, the enormous amounts of nutrition available in the ocean would have been more than enough to sustain them.
Today, ocean acidification is damaging the zooplankton, causing whales to travel even more miles in order to find adequate nutrition. But what happens when the ocean can no longer produce the large amounts of zooplankton needed to support these traveling giants? Pyenson predicts “There will be winners and losers” in the fight to survive in the changing ocean. Some species of baleen whales may be able to adapt, but others might perish. Whaling has also played a part in the future survival of the great Blue whale. The loss of whales we’ve already experienced could have far reaching ecological consequences we have yet to understand.
While politician’s line up for and against the decision of America’s climate-change-denying president, it’s more important than ever for environmentalists to speak up about the effects of climate change. Be informed, be a good example and be ready to march, make phone calls and write letters to make sure your government representatives are making the right choices for future generations.