Kelp and the Big City

If you’ve read through our “about section” or seen our blog in the past, you’ll know that kelp is threatened by climate change. This is perhaps the main reason why we are so interested in kelp in the first place, and so far Floating Forests has allowed us to build some of the most complete kelp forest datasets around. Soon we will be adding a new set of images to the project, this time examining a few key, high-risk locations with a fine-toothed comb. We’re interested in how coastal construction or development might impact kelp forests – it’s time to take our kelp research to the city! We will be taking a close look at kelp forests in California, Chile, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand.

While global climate change is extremely important, there is great value in examining smaller scales as well.  In fact, studies such as this one have shown that kelp forests are strongly affected by local conditions! As you might expect, changes to these local environmental conditions can have significant effects on the local wildlife.

We call changes that affect the environment “drivers”. For example, a construction project could “drive” environmental change by releasing sand and dirt (which are collectively referred to as “sediments”) into the water. When two different drivers interact and affect each other, we refer to them as “synergistic”.  Occasionally they can create especially favorable conditions, but often one exacerbates the negative effects of the other, so we call these “synergistic stressors”.

One way to think about this is to say that one driver can amplify the effects of another. For example: a marine ecosystem might be able to handle a 2° Celsius increase in average temperature without collapsing. Separately, it also might be able to handle the effects of a large construction project. However, the effects of both at the same time could prove catastrophic: organisms already stressed by warming might not be able to cope with disturbances caused by the construction, and most importantly, things might get bad much more quickly than we might expect.

Because an emoji is worth a thousand words:

This example is one of the many that play out across an ever-developing world. One consistent trend over the last several decades has been a large increase in coastal population. To say this more plainly – more people than ever before live near the coast. As coastal cities grow, constant expansion is needed in order to keep up with the population. This conversion of land from natural to urban terrain is known as “urbanization” and brings with it a host of environmental impacts – some of which are potentially harmful for kelp forests.

By digging into the satellite record, we can get an idea of how kelp forests in urban areas have changed over the last few decades in response to this trend of development. What’s really exciting about this opportunity is that with the power of citizen science we can cover a lot of ground: we want to compare cities across the globe in order to build a better understanding of how kelp in different places is affected by human activities. We expect there to be many interesting differences between these locations – it would probably be more surprising to learn that kelp in Australia was acting exactly like kelp in Chile!

Stay tuned as we prep for the launch of this exciting phase of Floating Forests – details about our study sites and more about the connections between urbanization and kelp coming soon!

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