Kelp is a key pillar of marine ecosystems and a huge carbon sink, but along the California coast, populations have been dwindling in recent years. Overpopulation of sea urchins, which feast on kelp, as well as rising sea temperatures, have devastated these marine forests, but new drone images from the Nature Conservancy offer hope for their comeback.
The researchers have been observing kelp forests by drone since 2019, flying 400 feet above the surface to map out the size and reach of kelp forests. While previous years showed a nearly barren sea landscape, this year’s images optimistically show much more brown seaweed than last year.
The researchers believe the comeback can be attributed to a recent upwelling of cool, nutrient-rich waters. Between 2019 and 2020, the average size of a kelp canopy increased from one acre to 5.5 acres.
Although the ecosystems are still out of balance, Kirk Klausmeyer, director of data science of Nature Conservancy’s California chapter believes that more data can help conservationists better address this crisis: “When dealing with problems like this, we really have to get as much data as possible. And drones allow us to get really high-resolution imagery of individual kelp plants.”