Freezing Time, Seaweed, and the Biologic Imaginary

17. 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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