A 'Perfect Storm' Is Destroying California’s Coastal Kelp Forests
The culprits have been called the “cockroaches of the oceans.”
In 1958, a sci-fi horror flick called The Blob was released, featuring bad special effects and a gooey monster that grew as it ate people.
A different blob appeared off the coast of California four years ago. This time, though, the amorphous mass wasn’t created by Halloween-inspired screenwriters. Instead, it was the work of climate change — and its consequences have arguably been more frightening.
“The Blob” is now what scientists are calling a powerful marine heat wave that approached California in 2014 and set in motion a chain reaction of environmental events that threaten to destroy fragile ecosystems and formerly thriving industries, according to the New York TImes.
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The 2014 marine heat wave brought the highest temperatures ever recorded in the area. Soon starfish began dying en masse from a mysterious illness that scientists believe is linked to the warming waters.
Purple sea urchins, ordinarily a prey of starfish, took advantage of the warm and safer waters to move into massive forests of kelp.
In a few years, the local urchin population grew 60-fold as it feasted on the plants. The kelp, meanwhile, declined by 93%.
In addition to the rapacious appetite of the urchins, The Blob has been pushing away essential marine nutrients, depriving the plants of sustenance.
The overall effect has been an ecosystem in rapid, spiraling decline, the Times reports.
The kelp forests support food chains by providing a crucial food source to various marine animals. As the kelp disappears, the area is becoming desolate, according to the Times, and local economies are being hollowed out.
For example, red urchins, which are harvested as a delicacy, are being displaced from the area, causing urchin divers to quit their jobs.
“The impacts underwater this year have been more devastating than what we’ve seen in the past,” Laura Rogers-Bennett, a marine ecologist, told the Times. “The perfect storm of events has been getting worse and worse over time, with 2018 being the worst we’ve seen.”
Efforts are currently underway to control the purple sea urchins, called “the ocean’s cockroaches,” but it’s an uphill battle, the Times reports.
Similar disruptions are happening elsewhere in the world as climate change drives up ocean temperatures and causes waters to acidify from excess carbon dioxide.
In fact, the oceans have absorbed more than 90% of the heat trapped in the atmosphere from greenhouse gas emissions, and have therefore experienced more drastic changes than on land.
Coral reefs, in particular, are being cooked alive around the world and could vanish from the oceans by 2050.
The decline of California’s kelp is emblematic of how climate change can completely change an area’s biological makeup in a few years.
In its latest report on the subject, the UN said that reversing these changes will “require[s] rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”