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Flickr/The Xylom Illustration

Perspective: No More Free Kelp in Northern California

It was startlingly bright, the gloom interrupted by diffuse white sunlight filtering through the fog.


My family and I were visiting Northern California in the winter of 2005. Peering from a lookout point by the coast on a late afternoon, still visible under the slow advance of the heavy evening marine layer was an expanse of kelp forests. Even from above, it seemed infinite, tangled and sprawling along the bay. Underwater, the kelp grew up to 100 feet tall, a dense submarine forest teeming with life in the cold, clear waters off the North Coast.


I remember my sister, wide-eyed, in quiet awe, asking our parents, “Is that free kelp?


An aerial shot of a kelp forest in Carmel-by-the-Sea in Northern California. (Mac Gaither/Unsplash)

Earlier in the day, we’d visited the kelp forest exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium. To us, the dichotomy was clear: if that was captive kelp, then this was free kelp. After our bemused parents confirmed that yes, this kelp was, in that sense, free, we exploded in excitement. Giddily, possessed with the feral spontaneity of childhood, we pressed our faces against the railing separating us from the coast, yelling, “Free kelp!” “FREE KELP!”, until we were exhausted. We hollered and stomped our feet, little celebrators of macroalgal liberation.


Giddily, possessed with the feral spontaneity of childhood, we pressed our faces against the railing separating us from the coast, yelling, “Free kelp!” “FREE KELP!”, until we were exhausted. We hollered and stomped our feet, little celebrators of macroalgal liberation.

I returned to California in 2014, as an undergraduate in Marine Biology. In the same year, Northern California’s kelp forest suffered a massive ecological collapse: marine heatwaves decimated kelp cover along the north coast, reducing it by over 90%. Warm waters slowed kelp growth, resulting in hungry purple sea urchins, which usually scavenge kelp detritus, devouring live fronds. The year prior, sea star wasting disease had devastated the urchins’ major predator, the sunflower sea star. Without a natural predator, the kelp forests were replaced by urchin barrens— seafloor overrun by urchins with no primary production to sustain the community. The effects impacted the coastal community, shuttering the North coast’s abalone and red sea urchin fisheries as their populations were overwhelmed by the 60-fold increase in purple urchins. Even the purple urchins that dominate the barrens wait in zombie-like starvation: they survive without eating for whoever-knows-how-long, but rouse to scrape algae off the rocks so no new growth can occur, the whole system gradually succumbing to decay.



A kelp forest overrun by purple sea urchins. (Pike Spector/Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

 

Following environmental news these days feels uncomfortably similar to watching ecological collapse on an even larger scale. Recently, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its sixth report on the effects of climate change. The BBC’s headline featured a notable quote from UN Secretary-General António Guterres: “code red for humanity”. The Atlantic called it a “catastrophe”. Other reports discussed the inevitability of surpassing the 2015 Paris Agreement target of limiting atmospheric warming to below 1.5 °C this century. The rhetoric around climate change has escalated, but major political action has not, the world suspended in unbearable stasis as it seems to wait for the point at which the machinery of modern life crashes down around us.


In many climate narratives, hope and despair are linked to a singular outcome. We can still stop this. It’s too late. We can save this. We’re already damned. But the real-world manifestation of climate stressors demonstrates that, for many of us, the coming years will be chronic, not singularly apocalyptic.

In this vein, even disaster pop culture from under 20 years ago feels decidedly off. In 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow, the northern hemisphere is plunged into an ice age as climate change-fueled superstorms batter most of the planet. Questionable science aside, its premise seems almost quaint now— a singular climatic apocalypse occurs, rupturing society and definitively heralding the arrival of capital-C Climate Change. The disaster is total and final, and then it is over.


The upheaval we face in reality promises no such concrete end. A recent Science paper showed that those under the age of 40 will experience “unprecedented” numbers of extreme events such as heatwaves, droughts, and floods in their lifetime. The day after tomorrow feels catastrophic, but there’s the day after that, too. And the one after, and the one after that. All the days for decades to come.