Sea otters fend off global warming

Take that, Mr. MIT science-journalism man.

To think you once accused us here at SFBay of heaping on “googly prose” for California’s beloved sea otters, just because they were being gobbled up by big mean sharks.

As it turns out, even gooier gobs of chintzy alliteration are needed to give sea otters their due credit for what researchers believe is a measurable contribution to palliating our planet’s warming atmosphere.

UC Santa Cruz researchers published a paper in October’s Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment which found sea otters play a significant role in slowing climate change by stimulating the growth of kelp forests in their habitat.

Sea otters promote the growth of kelp forests by devouring one of kelp’s most voracious natural lawnmowers: Sea urchins. When populations of the spiny sea creatures are kept in check by the otters, kelp forests thrive.

Biologist James Estes and environmental studies professor Chris Wilmers posited that if sea otters lived all around the world — instead of just along the east and west coasts of the North Pacific — burgeoning kelp forests would process 10 percent of harmful carbon dioxide out of our atmosphere.

Realistically, though, sea otters’ limited habitat restricts their climate change-fighting powers to more modest — but still measurably significant — levels, Estes told the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

“We just looked at the question, ‘Does it matter?’ And the answer was yes.”