Freezing Time, Seaweed, and the Biologic Imaginary

5. The submerged history of the near coastal, the history of a space where human impacts and life-cycles meet, as petroleum swirling with Bosphorus seaweed Pamuk describes, might point to a future. If the historical span of Celâl’s fantastic column is over-the-top in its goulish vision of the changes as the Black Sea’s water-levels fall, and a once- flowing Strait that was a source of life dry up, its rather visionary quality suggests the vast scale of the consequences of compromising.coastal habitats, or the unimaginable scale of environmental transformations at stake. And it reminds us of the dangerous poverty of historical condescension to the shores, and to their vulnerable nature.

The danger of a failure to detail, enrich, and examine the submerged landscapes of the offshore, often not fully revealed in almost the best data visualizations and geolocated imagery of near coastal habitats, challenge the limits of photography, cartography, and remote sensing, as they demand the detailed attention to the category of the coastal that remote observation fails to provide, and a broader historical vision of the shoreline’s properties as a significant habitat. For only by increasing the depth of our historical vision of the shoreline’s sensitivity can we fully appreciate the threat of its impending loss.

Could strategies for better visualization of kelp beds help as part of benthic environments preserve the locally decimated beds of seaweeds off the California coast? While Darwin seems to have almost immediately appreciated of the very delicate nature of the startling benthic surroundings observed in the ‘aquatic forests of the Southern Hemisphere” from aboard the HMS Beagle’s second journey of surveying the South American coast in the early nineteenth century. Darwin was so astounded at the variety of residents in the nourishing ambient kelp beds of copious density, he grasped an ecosystem whose loss is difficult to register or perceive today. Despite huge advances in remote sensing and aerial photography, as well as coastal management, the readiness to isolate seaweed as ornament, and difficulties to integrate extensive brown algae in an ecosystem of interdependent relations, provides only the most partial picture of the stakes involved.

The degree to which evolutionary biology promoted wonder at the structures of kelp as antecedents of living structures, algal vital forms between plant and animal, of a complex structure of almost unsurpassed variety and elegance among collections of wondrous objects, corals, or terrestrial beasts, aroused a near-contemporary interest in seaweed ornaments as they were included in objects to be preserved as specimens, and of a visual fascination that transcended or compared to actual abilities and technologies of manufacture, and their uncanny recognizability as biological forms and structures, suggestive of a vitalism associated with polyps, and hinting at new possibilities of reproduction and evolution.

Formal interest in seaweed as specimens partly grew as Darwin’s work was read. The role of seaweeds were often ornamentalized in maps and in ocean life, at the very same time as first scientifically studied–collected as specimens displayed as artifacts and natural wonders, that female collagists frequently arranged in imagined scenes as sites of fantasy, artfully placing the strands of marine algae in imitation of doilies or other woven fabrics, framing the natural shapes of algal specimens as ornaments. If seaweeds were seen as frozen aspects of evolutionary time, preserved deep undersea, they were explicitly removed from environments as aestheticized ornaments–around a decade after Darwin ruminated on the place of kelp forests in sustaining the biome–even if the term was coined a century after Darwin appreciated the concept on his exploratory voyage.

Sea-Weeds (1848), Eliza A. Jordson/Brooklyn Museum Archives

–even if they were artistically celebrated because of the visual interest of their isolated biomorphic forms when transposed into a scrapbook of mementos and removed from their environments as “natural” forms of art and ornament, in images that were framed by paper doilies that served to accentuate their delicate structures–

“Sea Weeds” (1848)/Brooklyn Museum Archives
Brooklyn Museum Archives

–even as they were assigned scientific botanical names, exercised fascination as decontextualized forms of life, as if frozen beneath the ocean in a primitive ecosystem we could look to as to the past.

Lycett collection, 1879-1994/Brooklyn Museum Archives

There is an odd sense, in seeing seaweeds and algal forms along the shore, washed up by waves, that they are framed by the sands lying beneath themselves–

–in ways that made nineteenth-century collectors, as several seventeenth century naturalists, obsessed with the possibility of viewing the seaweed in its oceanic setting.

The simultaneous question of mapping the abundance of kelp beds in the northern seas was confronted in the mid-nineteenth century in British admiralty charts, by sailors perhaps astounded by the quantity of kelp beds discovered off of the British Columbia coast, as much as intrigued with th possibility of avoiding them in laying anchor. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century nautical charts may offer a needed baseline for measurements of BC seaweed or maps of a kelp forest, by tracing the expanses of kelp that then extended several hundred meters offshore, and served to protect environments of cooler Pacific waters of British Columbia, as naval maps noted lest they be obstacles to oceanic travel.

Could these navigational charts provide a basis for tracking measurements of these undersea rainforests’ decline?

There is the possibilities mid-nineteenth century nautical maps’ precision offers a basis to compare to digital maps of kelp populations and uncover the changing range of kelp forests to assess their current environmental degradation in the same environments, in a serendipitous media archeology or cross-fertilization. The discovery of a historic bull kelp map of the 1850s, for exam[ple, among a range of charts from 1858 to 1950 of British Columbia’s coastal kelp beds were used by Maycira Costa of UBC’s Geography Dept. to track the persistence of longstanding kelp forests at different sounding levels in offshore coastal waters, which employ a strikingly similar iconography of the individual strands of kelp blades–and one cannot but think of the doilies assembled as curios by Eliza A. Jordson–to indicate local kelp beds.

The absence of an iconography to map kelp led the blades to indicate beds, offering outlines which Costa has helpfully traced in red to offer a hypothetical coverage of the expanse of kelp-dense regions that are bounded by accurate measurements of ocean depth, using digital tools to preserve their detailed spatial content and convert their information by updating the apparent innovative whimsy of their iconography to geospatial data. As much as remote sensing rendered these alternative cartographies obsolete, they suggest a materiality only now beginning to be re-appreciated!

Historic Kelp Mapping from UVic SPECTRAL Remote Sensing Lab/ Canadian Hydrographic Services and Fisheries and Oceans Canada

The striking similarity of such maps to satellite or drone shots of overhead views of coastlines raises questions of the differences in media technologies. The coverage of these maps will be adopted by the Canadian Hydrographic Service, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the Pacific Salmon Foundation, to plot the concentrations of kelp that were not exactly measured, but seen as dangers for sailing that vessels should avoid–rather than as nesting sites for starfish, juvenile salmon, and herring eggs, in expansive forests of bull and giant seaweeds that suck CO2 from the ocean waters offshore, and produce much of the needed oxygen for oceanic environments and for the world’s atrmosphere. Indeed, the coastal coverage of old admiralty maps that might have languished forgotten in local archives can provide a needed if startling form of remote sensing able to affirm the historical geographic spread of kelp beds against current kelp populations–

–for University of Victoria geographer Costa to affirm the vital role of kelp forests in the undersea region’s living geography and historic geography. Is it overly simple to suggest that in so doing so, Costa is investing new environmental meaning in an iconography of frozen time? The imaging of kelp habitats interested the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada in documenting one of the first maps of historic kelp presence in coastal areas.

The old nineteenth-century marine map gain new life as they might allow one to reconstruct a broader kelp environment, in short, that was not the subject of the original map at all, and to reconstruct an environment it did not even conceive that may prove invaluable as we collectively reorient ourselves to the critical role of kelp beds in nourishing ecosystems and an ability chart ecological loss and table marine ecosystem change in ways we have only begun.

Elephant Kelp Offshore in British Columbia

The valuable perspective of admiralty maps lies in comparing ithe robustness of kelp forests and kelp beds against satellite images to set base-lines for future conservation of coastal oceans. The comparison between old marine maps and satellite views pose questions of the distribution of kelp over time that might help resolve their relation to warming waters or to invasive or overly successful species which have been allowed to devour dwindling kelp forests off nearby coasts: the baseline is fundamental to assess the timing of their retreat, and untangle the roles of pollution, warming, and ocean upwellings in a kelp forest’s health.

6. It increasingly seems we stand at a comparable precipice of massive extinction and irreplaceable ecological loss of offshore kelp forests, if not in the midst of one. The point of the analogy of seaweed loss and redwood loss is evident in the Save the Redwoods map of coast redwoods depicting the historical contraction. The implication of the analogy of kelp to our endangered if offshore forest is self-evident and emphatic: deforestation is deforestation, and if you love the redwoods, extend that affection underwater and offshore to the comparably dense offshore kelp forest that has long nourished a comparable habitat, which needs it direly.

Althouth the disappearance of redwoods eerily mirrors the forests destroyed by logging, if not the sites of recent fires in our over-warming world, we have begun to appreciate the climate catastrophe in the threatened offshore habitats whose underwater forests’ withering away would mirror the loss of redwoods in changing the shore beyond recognition in the still larger ecosystem of the very near offshore. And while coastal redwoods can be mapped with significant precision by a combination of aerial photography, on-site observation, and maintenance of protected lands, the challenges of monitoring the health of the kelp forests under attack remain more hidden to the observer and human eye.

Save the Redwoods

The absence of much attention to the shore or ocean wgters in the map foregrounds the trees as a delicate coastal ecosystem, but reminds us of the unmapped underwater forest that lies offshore. As the redwood forests were nourished by the mist that rises from the Pacific, the forests similarly defined the coastal environments, and raise questions of the possible impact of a future kelp decline, man-made if not so immediately tied to human intentions.

The haunting green shadows of lost historic redwood ranges stand have been reduced to red areas of old growth fragments, many including within bright blue protected lands. The iconic Save the Redwoods map of the lost of coastal forests stands as a reminder of the melancholy relation of viewers to the modern coastline, and augur an impending reshaping of the coastal oceans that are slated to occur in coming years, under our eyes. But if Save the Redwoods can use private funds and donations to tpurchase privately held hillside groves of Sequoia like Alder Feet Grove,

–to secure that includes trees 3,000 years old for $15.6 million– and ensure the preservation of a private oasis populated with a concentration of some 500 old growth trees, and hope to preserve the remnants of old growth coast redwoods in the Grove of Titans.

It goes without saying that the preservation of kelp forests is far less able to be defined at any cost, and impossible to prevent from human or anthropogenic incursions, given the cascading dynamics of near-coastal ecology. The problems of limiting anthropogenic impacts on areas of coastal redwoods is ongoing, increased significantly as GPS rendered few areas unknown or inaccessible–the anthropocene nature of most landscape has increased a hunger to go offtrail that endangers the floor of old growth forests as Grove of the Titans, whose considerable popularity on social media has endangered lush vegetation of 2012, foregrounded in recent appeals for funds to restore the grove, that undercover the risks of even mapping delicate habitat that over the past seven years exposed it to anthropogenic damage after several thousands years.

Can we create reserves of protected kelp forests, and what would that mean for coastal policies? Kelp monitoring is not likely to help these forests, but may train our eyes on the fragility of ecosystems whose growth might be encouraged, and not overlooked, as the basis of habitat for so many sea mammals, rockfish, shorebirds, and even grey whales–lest they be mowed down by urchins who eat their holdfasts.

But perhaps the proper analogy for the rich habitat that kelp offers as a separate submarine ecoysystem is less the regions of redwoods, already surviving only as small fragments, than the rapidity of the destruction of rain forest, whose dense foliage, huge absorption of carbon dioxide, and rich nesting ground help create an ecosystem itself entangled in the delicate ecosystem it creates.

NOAA

The borders of the coastal oceans where seaweed grows on rocks, attaches to the ocean floor, or generates quickly from sunlight and CO2 in the water, make it a primitive but active substrate of a food chain, offering shelter, hiding, and perhaps a protective refuge for small fish, otter, prawn, stars, crustaceans, and snails, as well as anemone, algae, and crabs, before urchins can eat through their holdfasts.

For if algal growth on the near-shore beaches survive as more than an ornament, but actively reproducing and living forms–as these swollen fronds house the reproductive structures of “rockeweed” or Focus, which secrete a jelly-like film that afford a biogenetic antifreeze allowing them to survive in super cold arctic waters. The dynamic nature of kelp

While a GIS Kelp Database promises a better understanding of the forests’ size and position, the danger of divulging too much information that can encourage greater kelp harvesting–often without any protection–suggests a difficulty of failing to define Marine Protected Areas that could include the major kelp zones of the state–whose size is here considerably exaggerated, that lie within just several hundred meters of the shore, and the unique feeding grounds that they create for migrating populations.

7. It’s perhaps no accident that the efflourescnece of writings about seaweed occurred in the nineteenth century, as the images and study of marine vegetables presented a new level of scientific observations, and a new frontier of sciences of the offshore. The images of seaweeds that are now so popular as renderings of a marine and the unseen world of underwater ecologies, echoing the building blocks of life–and abilities of underwater photography–

–whose images echo the graphic images of Ernst Haeckle, if they give far more delicate and fluid form to the more rigorously geometric biomorphism of Haeckle’s algae.

If Haeckle’s naturformen recall disembodied morphologies, isolated as if to preserve evidence of precursors to life, as if they were a living fossilized record of an unknown past of evolutionary history, preserved underwater as if under glass–in biological records that suggest microscopic beings or early images of life, accompanied by identifying tags of their scientific names that seem to celebrate the new learning that has allowed their forms to be fully appreciated by the human eye.

The sense of such building blocks of the biological sciences seemed to reveal the infinity of creation, and caprices of evolution, as well as a hidden biological record of the past, evidence of a basic natural drive to geometries–if not just a natural geometry–appealing to the observer and suggestive of a new facility to observe the overlooked, and the range of geometric variations the sea revealed. In his 1904 Kunstformen der Natur, or Art Forms of Nature, Haekl used detailed engravings to create unexpected access to the variety of underwater life, suggesting an endless beauty that demanded and challenged classifications, that bled into an “aesthetics of nature” that Haekle boasted his abilities to uncover.

The obsessive attention to apparently fossilized seaplants in these elegant engravings suggest a dream of encyclopedic transcription of life or of classifying and clarifying forms–as well as a possibility of stopping time and excavating earlier life forms. In a variation on the nineteenth century fantasy of stopping time, Haeckle’s images seem to preserve a lost world of primitive life still existing undersea. The fantasy of stopping time, and archiving it in snapshots, classifying it in museal fashion to distinct periods, was a project of mapping, or meta-mapping–stopping time by placing it in a dramatic narrative framework or on the metric of scalability of precise discrete moments in fantasies of time-travel, and time-travelers, or of achieving new stages of society and new times in theorists of utopia. It seems natural, then, that the turn to seaweed celebrated the apparently inorganic natures o the organic forms of seaweed in plates and ethings as images of earlier layers in the strata of biologic knowledge, and access to a sort of primitive building blocks of life being observed in part in the human body, but able to be found undersea. If the seaweed forms were something of a world primeval–Herman Melville evoked how Billy Budd’s corpse sank into the sea as a hammock, “fathoms down, fathoms down,” woven as “the oozy weeds about me twist.”

The vitality of these forms was not less a focus than the world they uncovered or revealed. If early images of seaweeds were exotic and of the far northern seas, in a sixteenth century marine chart, amidst monsters of the north–

–the seaweed were domesticated as fantastic creatures and forms. If the image of Billy Budd’s body suggests a Jules Verne-like underworld, across a boundary or looking-glass, rather than one lying on the sea’s surface,–to be revealed to the privileged diver or underwater explorer, on the level of only slightly more modern mysterious underwater beasts–

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers: Tour du monde sous-marin, 1870.

–the living forms of the algal structures became studied with an attention of zoological precision, befitting naturformen of a life-force that was linked to the present in deeply evolutionary ways. Jules Verne’s alternate atlas of the undersea included seaweeds among a range of primitive early life forms.

The intellectual romance of the undersea as a site of primeval life lacked a period, but offered a sense of access to the earliest forms of life, kunstformen in tables that offered evidence of earlier stages of evolution, from seaweed and red algal forms to jellyfish rapidly expanded, as if in inverse to the destruction of military campaigns and as urban growth promoted a rediscovery of the rural, and an admiration of pristine forms allowed by engraved half-tones–

–that seemed to map out a new prospect on evolution itself by in the early twentieth century bringing new forms to life with a precision that underwater photography could not yet offer.

The biomorphic forms of seaweed and their echoing of land plants and life offered a spectacular abiltie4y to stop time, and freeze an evolutionary clock at one moment and present summa of current biological knowledge in encyuclopedic form, rendering their natural geometries open and accessible to viewers. Indeed, the range of such biodiversity of geometric forms seemed a sort of encyclopedia of natural forms, suggestive of the ways of making legible life and evolutionary secrets.

7. I recently re-experienced awe at naturformen wandering on the coastal shore in Monterrey and much of northern California’s benches, from Mendocino to the Pt. Reyes National Seashore to Big Sur, in ways that occasioned this post. If sea lettuces have recently washed ashore in an unmoored piles along Monterrey’s shores in 2015-16, in what local commentators spun as an abundant gift of free edible kelp on offer to the peninsula’s upscale residents,–

Vern Fischer/San Jose Mercury Nws/July 17, 2015

–born not by winter storms, but rather echoing the record-setting Sargassum ​blooms that were the result of warming temperatures leading to the declaration of national emergencies in Caribbean regions, as huge masses of floating mega-algae floated off the coast of Brazil, that have appeared in satellite imagery since 2011 in the Caribbean, as large undisciplined masses of seaweed, perhaps starting from the region where the Amazon River’s ocean discharge stimulated increased Sargassum growth, which has been increasing intrusive on Caribbean beaches as it has wandered north, clogging the coastal habitat of sea turtles, tantamount to an invasion of brown seaweed foreign to the region’s waters, converting seaweed-free beaches into unfamiliar swamps. The origins of the algae was unknown, but is perhaps tied to the increased iron nutrients in the Amazon’s sediment discharge.

Giant Sargassum Belt, 2011-13 (MODIS)/NASA Earth Observatory
designed by Mengqiu Wang and Chuanmin Hu, USF 

–and crated the notorious “golden floating rain forest of The Atlantic Ocean,” so huge that ocean currents meant it also invaded much of the eastern coast of the United States, although the limited aerial surveys that were performed 1992-2015 have provided only a partial mapping of its extensive unmoored oceanic wanderings, with an unprecedented 20 million tons floating on ocean waters before covering beaches as it washed up on shores of the tropical Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and east coast of Florida in weird atypical algal blooms that “choked,” “mucked up,” or “carpeted” what had often been. white sand beaches.

The massive disruption of coastal environments faced a quandary.

The bull kelp that had washed ashore before my own coastal wanderings on the Monterrey peninsula was not so threatening. But it sent me into Haeckel-like reveries of individual species that left me stunned at their biomorphic likeness and triggered immediate reflection on the geometry of their vegetative forms–

–to more papery or lettuce-like plants, which Haeckle and others had increasingly recognized and prized as evidence of preserving intriguingly primitive biologic forms obscured by later evolutionary processes–

–but also to wonder about the unrooting of these huge kelp plants.

It has long seemed, in seeing seaweed stretched along the seashore, as if a curtain were being drawn back on a long- hidden record of the private nature of submarine life along the sandy stretch of coast. So strong was the sense that the seaweeds were feminized as hair, thin, diaphanous veils as of gendered clothing, before being promoted as primitive building blocks of life. The rise of the scientific study of seaweeds as animal specimens from the nineteenth century began from women scientists who attended to the forms of seaweed clustered near the shores, but extended to expansive seaweed expeditions–that reveal the prodigious copious nature of seaweeds as Alaria Tennefolia on the Alaskan shore–

–mammoth long-preserved plants that were publicly exhibited on the sides of improvised sheds after being retrieved from the sea.

The trawling of new seaweed specimens set a stage for scientiic admiration of their structures, and prepared for the subsequent farming of new seaweed specimens. But that is a perhaps related story of a victory of aquaculture.

Seaweeds of different sorts seem to have floated or been swept ashore with increased frequency in the early fall and winter of 2019, despite a lack of pronounced coastal storms; the plants seem to have drifted e washed considerably close-in to shore, as if seeking colder waters before being stranded in warmer climes–

Had it been merely washed ashore by an early winter storm–unlikely–or was it actually mowed down by hungry urchins?

Purple Urchins Grazing off of Nova Scotia
Karen Filbee-Dexter/ may be subject to copyright.
Urchins S. droebachiensis on scoured coralline algae

8. The invasion of purple sea urchins, now in abundance after the disappearance of their natural predators–crabs and starfish, as well as otters, has created an underwater lawnmower effect, as leaves of kelp beds are eaten with relish, including young plants before they start to grow from the near ocean floor. Lawnmowers barely capture what is like applications of Roundup, the herbicide tolerated in the United States, if targeted for elimination in Germany due to its toxicity: advancing populations of urchins eat through encrusted barnacles, calcified coralline algae on undersea the rocks, and eating through abalone shells as their jaws enlarge as calcite deposits in response to hunger, enabling them to eat otherwise inedible material, and “whose impact increases as their food supply diminishes,” observed Cynthia Catton, who has surveyed the effects of urchins on Northern California kelp populations since 2002. Catton found urchins crowding on the ocean floor at over a dozen urchins per sq m with intact hardy appetites, having already rendered former forests barren plains; their removal must precede the restoration of lost kelp forests.

Did the mountains of seaweed washed ashore on the sandy beach, on Labor Day weekend, float ashore unmored from holdfasts and flat disks that once anchored them to the floor, unmoored by predatory urchins living on the ocean floor–were they cut from kelp forests by an army of purple urchins? For the expanding population of purple sea urchins attack algae at their base, effectively cutting entire plants loose from the ocean floor. The image of clear-cutting forests of redwoods returns, even if the algal seaweeds are not, strictly speaking, plants at all, but forests open to clear-cutting by urchin populations no longer constrained by natural predators as sea otters or starfish. (Forests near healthy populations of sea otters allow forests to absorb up to twelve times the CO2 as in areas with fewer or reduced otter populations . . . and luxuriant ecosystems of cascading ecological influences.)

It was deeply tragic surveying the stringy heaps of algae, Seaweed suggested possible food for early humans who seem to have migrated across the Bering Strait and down what would become known as the California coast. But the bulk of seaweed washed ashore, as if deracinated from holdfasts, suggested a shifting environment that was occurring under my yes.

The considerable historical decline of otter populations in the northern Pacific and Gulf of Alaska had already reduced the natural predators of urchins. But the arrival of dense populations of urchins on ocean floors have already created undersea deserts of deforestation: were these beds of seaweed, isolated on the shore, in fact the consequence of similarly mowed down kelp beds to create the sterility of deforested urchin barrens?

The tragic removal of huge bull kelp algae on the sands suggeted to an impressionable viewer the removal of undersea forests. Such barrens replace kelp forests with an increased density of urchins act as systemic barriers too ecological change or vegetation on the ocean floor. The decline or elimination of coastal beds of kelp, if not of kelp forests, is  predicted off the coasts of Denmark, France and southern England as early as the first half of the twenty-first century. Where the displaced bull kelp, its flotation bulb and its leaves of photosynthesis removed from the Pacific, after they had been individually severed from the fasteners that held them to the ocean floor by overplentiful urchin swarms?

California’s coast has already witnessed massive die-offs of giant algal groves of bull kelp forests that float to the surface of warming coastal waters, for not entirely known reasons, clearly tied to climate change; ballooning sea urchin populations of amazingly increased densities have erased much marine vegetation in parts of warmer oceans, where they stand to created barrens preventing vegetation or evolutionary change, in Hokkaido, in northern Japan, and in Australia and Tasmania. The appearance of these deracinated bull kelp severed from fasteners seem omens of a die-off of near coastal kelp, arriving on land in San Francisco beaches, unwillingly harvested from the near-coastal ocean.

The rapidity of the alteration of the environment and ecosystem is terrifyingly analogous to the rapid devastation of rain forests, as entire ecosystems are essentially burnt to the ground, with toleration of clearcutting the edges of Amazonia by lighting fires to “claim” once-forested lands, on the edges of the rainforest, in ways that stand to disrupt and damage its delicate habitat.

NASA Satellite Data/Washington Post
 Global Forest Watch/Real-Time Fire Tracker, September 2019

The growth of the study of seaweed in the mid-nineteenth century was, in part, begun at the edges of the scientific community, mostly by lone female scientists in outlying areas who called new attention and scrutiny to the biological roles and life-cycles of seaweed populations and species.

The return to the coast was a scientificized version of how plentiful coastal supplies of seaweed that attracted early human migrations to advance along shorelines, reconstruction of human migratory routes suggests–encouraged over successive generations by the copious availability of coastal seaweed supplies, in ways that echoed the status of the Pacific waters as feeding grounds:

even washed up kelp supplies could have led migrating generations along the coastal routes, providing needed nourishment and rationales for coastal settlement, together with the otters, seals and other species that evolved along the dulse-rich shorelines.

9. The density of such kelp forests–which in part help attract Pacific pinnipeds on their migration to California beaches–had earlier attracted the arrival of waves of early exploration of the coastal migration hypotheses that have been suggested as alternatives to what was long presumed a bridge route.

Bering Land Bridge as Human Migration Route/
National Geeographic Society

–although the migratory record was less of interest than possibilities to examine a lost biology, and excavate what seemed an earlier evolutionary time, as if a liquid living fossil record. The centrality of seaweed to human movements in the hypothesis of coastal migration emphasizes the deep embeddedness of kelp and algal abundance in local environments, and the historical centrality of kelp as a vector of causation in a very deep history indeed.

Of course, the isolation of the early scientific preservation and removal seaweed from oceanic habitat where they thrived was an expansion of knowledge and oceanic knowledge removed from the rationale of their aqueous environments, as if these records of the past were outliers, no longer playing an active role in the evolution of the environment or our own environments.

While not engravings or prints or framed strands on samplers, unfastened bull kelp that washes up on San Francisco beaches seems an odd reminder of the frozen images of seaweeds of the past, providing an eery reminder that seems to echo image of the drastic removal and devouring of bull kelp from off the Sonoma coast, in what has been called “the crash of the kelp forest,” analogous to the disappearance of kelp from the coast of Tasmania in the early 2000s, and the disappearance of Hokkaido kelp that has been replaced by urchin barrens.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Images perpetuated a paradoxically frozen image of seaweed specimens that removed them from growth and variety as a frozen biological past, and as an imagined point of access to a frozen past, seaweed was an opportunity for biological time travel, rarely mapped as a habitat or as encouraging habitat, evident in the rare protected offshore coastal areas of marine preserves on offshore islands where, far from beaches, seaweed populate rocky coasts.

Mazzaella Oregona on rocks, on Point Reyes National Seashore

For the expansive kelp forest parallels preserved in the protected parts o the Northern California coast, where once-extensive coastal kelp forests have long attracted the annual migration of Pacific pelagic to feeding grounds. But it is itself rarely mapped for some time as a living part of its environment, or was until the recent shock of a decline of the underwater forests in warming waters, and the sudden realization of the instability of these forests as fertile feeding grounds as a potential casualty of climate change.

10. The challenges faced by kelp forests tragically proves a yet another useful index of the consequences of global warming, if not a canary in the coal mine, if one is needed, of massive consequence. Although the coal mine is not being tested for fumes, but caving in, and the canary will be pulling an entire ecosystem with it, rather than being only a proverbial test case able to be sacrificed for safety’s sake. The mapping of the strartling fragility of the kelp forest affirms the delicate nature of its presence, however, and the delicate nature of the goldilocks moment of ocean temperatures and their global distribution.

If Mike Bostock’s live code from Observables has used data from the National Climatic Data Center to show where seasons exist, by temperature variations across the lower forty-eight since 1895, where the concentration of greatest mean variables locate seasonality in the midwest, and confirm temperate California and the Keys, making deep waters of the Pacific provide the perfect cooling baths to nourish kelp, and its coastal waters places for their relative flourishing, fed by regular mineral upwellings.

National Climatic Data Center data wrangled by Bostock at Observablehq

Seaweed forests were however stunningly appreciated as the sudden nature of their decline for the first time occasioned examination of the role such huge kelp forests have long played, both with rising oceanic temperatures, and the invasion of purple sea urchins that, facing a lack of other food sources of nourishment, and fewer natural predators, have all but decimated in its once expansive forests, and that stand to change the submarine populations of abalone, fish, and snails in ways from which we can rarely imagine a clear route of rebound.

2008-2012 loss of Kelp Forests off of Northern California
California Department of Fish and Wildlife/
graphic by Nadja Popovich/New York Times

Indeed, the 100,000 gallon tank of coastal waters with abalone, starfish, and bull kelp that was designed in the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco that promised dives into the kelp forest to illustrate its wealth ofcoastal biodiversity in Northern California’s near coastal waters.

The danger that the exhibi will in itself become a “time machine,” as suggested Kendra Pierre-Louis, as much of the kelp once recovered from coastal Califorian waters collapses, and a sensitive environment and habitat becomes a desert, as beds of bull kelp whose growth fostered by upwellings are overgrazed. Although the waters’ nutritious sediment had allowed the kelp to growth as quickly as ten inches each day, rapidly regrowing meadows in a sort of Edenic bounty, kelp cover is disappearing from local waters where fishing, based on aerial surveys of the California Fish and Wildlife Services challenge one to imagine the broader notion of what a Marine Protected Area might be. A terrifying cascading implications of global warming on our coastal oceans and coastal ecosystems is provoked by the maps of a hugely reduced presence of kelp beds in Northern California, between 2008 and 2014.

Shifting kelp cover in these coastal regions, as recorded by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, stand to shift the notion of the coastal ocean, and hamper its resilience, as mowed-down bull kelp of past abundance seem altogether absent from the coastal oceans where they used to offer copious food supplies.

Change oin Bull Kelp in Ocean Cove, CA 2012-16. 
KEVIN JOE AND CYNTHIA CATTON, CALIFORNIA DEPT FISH & WILDLIFE

The discovery of seaweeds as life forms in the nineteenth century mirrors a rise of often marginalized female scientists’ work. As taking up the absence of concerted studies, either attracted to the unobserved or attuned to or took up the slack for an absence of studies of seaweed as life forms worthy of careful scrutiny, in the mid-nineteenth century, returning, often, to Renaissance biological records of fascination with cataloging the conspicuous varieties of seaweeds found in Northern California in preserved form. The recovery and reappreciation of the forms discovered by these early naturalists–long hidden in libraries–offered evidence of the sailing of Spanish ships into the area of Northern California, and the specificity of algal families along the coastal shores.

The reappreciation of how species of seaweeds were for the first time identified and classified by early modern biologists helped to elevate lacy forms of life were elevated to the status of scientific observations. (The photography of seaweeds provided, perhaps, a new sense of freezing time, as did the preservation of seaweed samples, now housed in places like U.C. Berkeley’s Jepson Herbarium, now accessible, documenting subtidal varieties of seaweed species, in situ, allowing us to think of the sand and water surrounding their forms, and their place within the offshore sediment of a coastal ocean, rather than as isolated specimens of flora within a collection far removed from offshore marine life, but vitally tied to a healthy benthic habitat.

This post is dedicated to the memory of the avid naturalist Dr. Marjorie Winkler, whose detailed observation of coastal birds, seaweeds, and plants is a treasured memory of wandering on the coast of Wellfleet, MA. Even if Marjorie dedicated much attention to the remains of earth cores of sediment predating European settlement of America, based on microscopic deposits of pollen, seeds, and charcoal from the muddy bottom of kettle lakes like Thoreau’s Walden Pond as well as the algae at the bottom of Lake Mendota, WI, her long love was the ecology of the Cape’s coast.

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Filed under climate change, climate emergency, data visualization, Global Warming, seaweed

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