Sea otters help take a bite out of climate change: 3 stories you may have missed

© Keith A. Ellenbogen

Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. How sea otters can fight climate change 

This furry creature’s appetite could take a bite out of greenhouse gases. 

The story: A growing body of research shows that sea otters could help slow climate breakdown, reports Ula Chrobak for BBC. Nearly hunted to extinction in the late 19th century for their fur, these aquatic mammals disappeared from many coastal ecosystems, such as kelp forests and mangroves. As a result, sea urchins — a sea otters’ favorite snack — rapidly reproduced and chewed through kelp forests, releasing the massive amounts of carbon they store. 

Following successful conservation efforts, sea otters have returned to these ecosystems in recent years. Kelp forests with sea otter populations stored more than 4.4 million tons of carbon — equivalent to taking nearly 1 million cars off the road for a year — compared to forests without otters, scientists found.

The big picture: Kelp forests are climate superstars, soaking up carbon in the atmosphere and often sinking it in the bottom of the sea, where it can remain sequestered for centuries. Many farmers have begun to cultivate kelp to help fight the climate crisis — and sea otters are critical to the success of these farms by keeping sea urchins, crabs and other herbivore populations low. 

"They have a disproportionately large impact on the ecosystem relative to their abundance," Heidi Pearson, a marine biologist at the University of Alaska Southeast, told BBC. 

Read more here

Extreme weather is forcing Guatemalan farmers to seek new land.  

The story: As climate change accelerates, cycles of heavy rains and enduring droughts have become more frequent in Guatemala, threatening the livelihoods of millions of farmers in the country. Struggling to grow enough food to even feed their families, many of these farmers are attempting — and often failing — to migrate to new areas, reports Denise Chow and Carlos P. Beltran for NBC News. 

“We don’t have much land — no one does around here — so when we lose crops, we lose everything,” Darwin Mendez, a farmer in western Guatemala, told NBC News. “Whatever we grow in the field is not enough to feed ourselves. I want to go to the U.S., so I can feed my family.” 

The big picture: According to recent research, Guatemala is not the only country facing a migration crisis due to climate change: More than 30 million people in Central America are projected to migrate toward the U.S. border over the next 30 years as their homes become inhospitable due to warming temperatures and rising sea levels. 

The influx of large numbers of climate refugees could exacerbate conflicts over resources and put increased pressure on cities around the world, experts say

“It’s hard to point to a region of the world that is not going to be heavily impacted by climate change and from migration,” said Nicholas Depsky, a climate researcher, told NBC News. “When you see the writing on the wall, it’s hard to feel like there’s any way that you can overstate the gravity of the situation.”

Read more here

Hungry goats could help prepare land for fire season. 

The story: Goats could be at the core of the latest fire prevention strategy by doing what they do best: eating. Allowing goats to graze on fire-prone land for an extended period of time can help remove tall grass and brush, which typically fuel flames, reports Coral Murphy Marcos for The New York Times. Additionally, goats can help restore land affected by fire, explained Lani Malmberg, a weed scientist and entrepreneur who developed this technique.

The goats’ waste goes back into the soil as organic matter, which helps parched land retain more water, potentially preventing future fires. 

“By increasing soil organic matter by 1 percent, that soil can hold an additional 16,500 gallons of water per acre,” she told The New York Times. 

The big picture: Reports show that the cost of fire suppression has doubled since 1994 to more than US$ 400 million annually, with most expenses going toward herbicides and prescribed burns that could harm the land. Goat herds, on the other hand, are a cost-effective and natural way to prepare land for fire seasons, some scientists say. 

“We thought that the goats could achieve our objectives with their ability to work on steep slopes,” Kristy Wallner, a range land management specialist for the bureau’s Colorado Valley field office, told The New York Times. “It’s going to be a useful tool for us to use moving forward.”

Read more here.


Kiley Price is the staff writer and news editor at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.

Cover image: Sea otter in Monterey, California  Keith A. Ellenbogen)

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