With the help of hundreds of volunteers, over twenty years of hard work, and lots of cooperation, a team of scientists from 14 different organizations joined forces in an effort that spans the Pacific Ocean to document the northward migration of kelp forests due to warming waters. The new Global Change Biology study, senior authored by Co-Director Fiorenza Micheli, highlights the power of community-based science to monitor and understand ecosystem changes around the world.
"By combining thousands of underwater surveys of marine kelp forests across the California Current region, spanning Alaska to Baja California, Mexico, we documented major, region-wide changes in these productive coastal ecosystems in response to recent heat waves," said Micheli. Earlier this year, Micheli joined other leading kelp forest ecology and climate researchers around the world in a Science letter emphasizing the importance of kelp forests as earlier indicators of climate change.
By using similar monitoring guidelines across different programs and groups, the project was able to compare their results and develop a picture of what was happening to kelp forests in different regions. PISCO, the Partnership for the Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, developed the initial monitoring program in California and Oregon in 1999. Those efforts expanded with Reef Check of California, Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI) and MexCal.
Each region had different types of volunteer divers collecting information—from undergraduate students and tourist divers in California, to women from fisher communities called “Las Sirenas del Mar” at Isla Natividad in Mexico. Las Sirenas del Mar joined the team with backgrounds as far from the sea as housekeeping and processing plants. They were trained as divers to do the community-based monitoring program underwater.
“This is an excellent example of collaboration between researches, communities, and civil society organizations in USA and Mexico to understand how climate change will impact the kelp forest and therefore fisheries in coastal communities for the next 30 years," explained Dr. Jorge Torre, a co-author and collaborator from COBI. "This can help us to start making the needed changes so the coastal communities can adapt and maintain the ecosystem resilience.”
By analyzing the data from each separate group and area as a whole, the researchers were able to clearly see an ocean-wide trend: edges of the distribution are more sensitive and kelp is migrating northward. But the researchers also noticed that as the kelp migrates, only the species that eat it directly appear to migrate with it. This leaves a broken food web behind. The changes could wreak ecological and economic havoc on communities—both marine and human—that depend on kelp to survive.
Based on these changes, Micheli stressed the need for increased adaptation and action. "Impacts are greatest in the northern and southern portions of this region, highlighting the urgency of protecting these vital ecosystems, sustaining livelihoods and ensuring food security for coastal communities."
Study co-authors also included Rodrigo Beas-Luna, Gabriela Montaño-Moctezuma and Guillermo Torres-Moye at Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, C. Brock Woodson at University of Georgia, Mark Carr and Dan Malone at UC Santa Cruz, Charles Boch at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, Jennifer E. Caselle at UC Santa Barbara, Matt Edwards at San Diego State University, Jan Freiwald at Reef Check California, Scott L. Hamilton at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, Arturo Hernandez atComunidad y Biodiversidad A.C., Kristy J. Kroeker at UC Santa Cruz, and Julio Lorda at Universidad Autónoma de Baja California and Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve.