by Rebecca White, CW Wildlands Director
Originally published in The Register-Guard, December 25, 2021.
Just past the winter solstice, the days are starting to lengthen, and many feel inspired to make positive changes. But with so many problems facing us, it can be challenging to decide where to focus that energy.
Climate change is upon us, and Earth’s ecosystems are unraveling. Canadian writer J.B. MacKinnon describes the “Ten Percent World” we now inhabit, a planet with a fraction of the wild abundance that once existed. This threshold turns up a lot: tuna, cod and swordfish populations have dropped below 10% of their historical numbers, and the same goes for great whales and gray wolves. Pacific Northwest forests retain, at best, 10% of their old-growth trees. And those iconic avians of our primeval forests, the Northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet, hang on at a tiny fraction, likely well below 10%, of their former populations.
The bad news is that we are losing more than just individual species: As the pieces fall out, entire ecosystems collapse. The better news is ecosystems can regenerate, often faster than we expect. And the even better news is functional ecosystems sequester carbon on a massive scale. Although we spew 11 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year, the annual increase is only 4.7 billion tons: Earth’s ecosystems — degraded as they are — absorb and store the rest.
Rebuilding ecosystems means even more carbon could be drawn down. One example is the “food chain of the giants” created by great whales. A proposed climate geoengineering tactic would add iron to the ocean: iron feeds plankton, which sequester atmospheric carbon in their bodies before they die and sink to the ocean floor, locking that carbon away for the ages. But whales used to do this for us at a much greater scale, by seeding the oceans with their iron-rich droppings. If we allowed their populations to rebuild, they could sequester millions of tons of carbon per year if we merely fertilize the plankton food chain.
In addition, whale’s bodies themselves once sequestered massive amounts of carbon: when whales die, most fall to the ocean floor to decompose, locking up many tons of carbon each. Recovering one single population of just one species of whale would sequester as much carbon as a forest the size of Los Angeles — and 13 species of great whales still exist, though several are on the brink of extinction. Multiply the impacts of their recovery by the hundreds of other such ecosystems — sea otters and kelp forests, gray wolves and wetlands — if restored, could also draw down and store carbon on a large scale.
Of course, we have to stop burning fossil fuel. But, crucially, on the carbon uptake side of the equation, we must greatly increase natural carbon storage if we hope to reach a true net-zero. Other than supporting rewilding projects and large-scale ecosystem protection, like the strategic Northwest forest carbon reserves proposed by leading forest climate researcher Dr. Beverly Law, what can individuals do?
For my part, I return often to Maxine Hong Kingston’s line, written after her home was destroyed by a wildfire: “In a time of destruction, create something. A poem. A parade. A community. A school. A vow. A moral principle. One peaceful moment.”
To those, I’d add: A native wildflower meadow. A future forest. A humble compost pile. (All of these sequester carbon, incidentally.) Join Cascadia Wildlands on a fieldchecking trip and advocate for threatened, big trees. Grab Chandra LeGue’s gorgeous book, “Oregon’s Ancient Forests,” and “adopt” one of our remaining old-growth groves as your personal mission. Help plant an urban forest with Eugene Friends of Trees. (All of these sequester carbon, too.) As we settle in for winter, we all can plan ways to heed Kingston’s call: Create something!
Rebecca White is the Wildlands Director for Cascadia Wildlands. She directs Cascadia Wildlands’ forest defense work across Oregon and the Cascadia bioregion. She writes a monthly column for The Register-Guard.