Sea Otters and Climate Change: The Unseen Connection

Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) are not only charismatic creatures but also significant players in the fight against climate change. Their actions in their natural habitats contribute to a chain of ecological events that have broader implications for the planet’s climate. This article delves into the unseen connection between sea otters and climate change, exploring how their existence and behaviors help in mitigating climate adversities.

The Role of Sea Otters in Kelp Forest Preservation

Sea otters play a crucial role in maintaining the health and vitality of kelp forests, which are pivotal in sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Here’s how the cycle operates:

  • Sea Otters’ Predatory Behavior: Sea otters prey on sea urchins and other invertebrates that feed on kelp plants. By controlling the population of these herbivores, sea otters contribute to the flourishing of kelp forests. When sea urchins, in particular, are left unchecked, they can do catastrophic damage by wiping out entire kelp forests, creating urchin barrens. A study from the University of California, Santa Cruz, suggests that a booming sea otter population could significantly reduce sea urchin numbers, allowing kelp forests to become very large, further aiding in carbon sequestration​.healthy kelp forest
  • Kelp Sequestration of Carbon Dioxide: Healthy kelp forests absorb a significant amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a process vital for combating climate change. Kelp forests are capable of storing up to 20 times more carbon per acre compared to land-based forests. This carbon sequestration reduces the overall amount of atmospheric CO2, a key player in global warming​​.

By this mechanism, we see how sea otters help combat climate change through a ripple effect that begins with their predatory behavior and ends with carbon sequestration. The link between sea otters, kelp forests, and climate change is a compelling example of how intricate and intertwined the ecological and climatic systems are.

How Climate Change Affects Sea Otters

The interplay between sea otters and climate change is a nuanced one, encapsulating a cycle where both affect each other significantly. As we just discussed, sea otters contribute to the health of kelp forests which are crucial in sequestering carbon dioxide, thus playing a part in mitigating climate change. On the other hand, the changing climate poses substantial threats to sea otters’ survival and well-being, consequently impacting the marine ecosystems they help balance. Here are several ways how sea otters are affected by climate change:

  • Changing Ocean Temperatures: Rising sea temperatures may affect the distribution and abundance of sea otters’ prey, impacting their survival. Changes in water temperature can also alter the distribution of kelp forests, potentially reducing the habitats available to sea otters.
    • The Sea Otter Foundation & Trust is funding a study that is being conducted by the Seattle Aquarium that focuses on investigating the abundance and impact of sea otters on Washington’s nearshore ecosystems during climate change events. Using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), the researchers aim to determine if sea otters help stabilize kelp forests amid climate-related disturbances like warm-water events. This study is pivotal in understanding the role of sea otters in maintaining ecosystem resilience in the face of climate change.Remotely operated vehicle
  • Ocean Acidification: Increased levels of carbon dioxide lead to ocean acidification, which could affect the shellfish populations that sea otters depend on for food. Acidic waters can cause shell thinning and reduce the survival rate of shellfish larvae, subsequently affecting the food supply for sea otters.
  • Storm Frequency and Intensity: Climate change leads to more frequent and intense storms that could disrupt sea otter habitats. Storms can cause a disturbance in marine ecosystems and may pose a threat to pups during the breeding season.

These effects of climate change on sea otters demonstrate a cyclical relationship where sea otters not only impact climate change through kelp forest preservation but also face threats from the changing climate themselves.

Sea Otters: The Unsung Saviors

The role of sea otters in ecosystem balance is a testament to the interconnectedness of nature. Their presence in the marine ecosystem is a vital cog in the wheel of climate control mechanisms. Learning more about all otter species (including sea otters and river otters), their habitats, and their behaviors helps in understanding the broader picture of their contribution to combating climate change.

The relationship between sea otters and climate change is a great example of how every element in an ecosystem plays a part in the larger global climate scenario. By protecting sea otters and ensuring the health of kelp forests, we take a step closer to a balanced and healthier planet. 

This exploration sheds light on the often overlooked, yet significant, connection between sea otters and climate change, underscoring the importance of preserving sea otter populations for a healthier climate. Through a symbiotic relationship with kelp forests, sea otters exemplify nature’s innate ability to maintain ecological balance and combat climate adversities, driving home the point that every bit of conservation effort counts in our endeavor for a sustainable future.

At Sea Otter Foundation & Trust, we work to ensure the survival and recovery of sea otters in their habitats by building funds to support research, conservation, and education. You can learn more about the all-important efforts of our grant recipients by watching our interviews with them. These efforts are funded directly by our supporters, so consider advancing our crucial work by adopting an otter or making a donation today!