Coral reef degradation has been a central topic in discussions about the immediate effects of a warming climate, but another coastal ecosystem is also feeling the pressures of warming waters. Kelp forests are integral to coastal health but have been declining dramatically in recent years. In areas like the coastline of Tasmania, kelp forests have declined 90 percent.
Kelp forests are vital for cushioning storm surges, providing habitats, absorbing excess nutrients to cleanse water, and absorbing CO2. They grow along the coasts of every continent except Antarctica and preserving them could be key to mitigating the effects of climate change.
Cayne Layton, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania has dedicated his career to the preservation of kelp forests and spoke to Yes! Magazine about his work. He, in collaboration with the lab, has created plots of kelp farms off the coast of Tasmania and is working to see whether climate-resilient “super-kelp” that has been raised in a laboratory will fare better in Tasmania’s changing seas.
The remaining 5 percent of kelp forest off the country’s coast has survived due to adaptations and natural selection. Researchers are working to uncover adaptations that allowed these plants to survive and replicating them in lab-grown varietals.
Although researchers are not quite sure how kelp forests are able to capture carbon so efficiently, they have found a correlation between the depth of kelp forests and their carbon retention rates. This correlation creates even more urgency to protect deepwater forests.
The fight to preserve these coastal protectors is happening all over the world. In southern California, scientists are painstakingly clearing forests of purple sea urchins which have devoured nearly three quarters of Santa Monica Bay’s kelp. In the United Kingdom, a plan known as “Help Our Kelp” aims to restore a 70-square-mile tract of historic kelp forest along the country’s southern Sussex Coast.
Kelp is an enormous asset for mitigating climate change and its damaging effects on coastal communities, but these forests require clean, cool water to thrive. Farming and conservation efforts are key solutions to supporting these ecosystems, but reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is the only long term solution for saving these stellar sea supporters.