Wanted: Citizen Scientists to Identify Giant Kelp in Falklands and Beyond

Colleen Locke | December 13, 2017
A kelp forest

A kelp forest
Image by: SBC Staff

Giant Kelp Mapping Floating Forests Project Launches New Website

For the last three years, UMass Boston Assistant Professor of Biology Jarrett Byrnes and colleagues from California, Portugal, and Chile, have used the work of more than 7,000 citizen scientists in their quest to figure out whether climate change is having an impact on giant kelp forests in California and Tasmania.

Today, Byrnes and his colleagues are launching a new, improved NASA-funded Floating Forests website which will give citizen scientists the chance to help explore more of the world’s kelp forests from their desktops or phones.

“Our citizen scientists provided feedback about what worked and what didn’t. They had a lot to say about how we processed images and how to take this project and expand it to the rest of the planet,” Byrnes said.

Having people identify kelp from their living rooms or the subway is much more efficient than the traditional way of counting kelp, Byrnes said.

“The way most people sample kelp is to get in water, swim around, and count, count, count!” he said.

This method comes with limitations. Conditions have to be right so SCUBA divers can complete the task, meaning it’s not something they can do year-round. Even when everything goes right, they can only sample a small area on one tank of air. Fortunately, giant kelp forms surface canopies, so you do not need to be in water to see it.

Byrnes’s collaborator Kyle Cavanaugh of UCLA figured out how to use NASA Landsat images to count giant kelp from space, but even with an army of undergraduates looking at the images, it proved to be too big of a task. Cavanaugh and others approached Zooniverse about launching a website that would allow citizen scientists to map giant kelp and discuss the science with the project scientists. As of this week, 7,155 users have looked at 692,092 images on the old Floating Forests website and made 2,916,490 classifications. Now Byrnes and colleagues are setting their sites on the wider world in this new NASA-funded effort.

Byrnes says to start, the new site at http://floatingforests.org will include 5,000 images of the Falklands starting in 1983. The islands are about 300 miles east of South America's southern Patagonian coast.

“The Falklands are dominated by giant kelp which form the base of the coastal ecosystem. It’s a breeding ground – local squid love to lay their eggs on kelp. It’s also a source of kelp rafts that can transport some species around the Subantarctic oceans,” Byrnes said.

Byrnes says citizen science classifications are good. If the first four people who are shown an image don’t see any kelp, the image will be retired. But if at least one person sees kelp, it will be shown to 15 people. Byrnes and School for the Environment graduate student Isaac Rosenthal are working with Professor of Psychology Alice Carter to figure out a sweet spot of how many “yes” responses are needed for an accurate picture of the presence of giant kelp. Right now it seems to be six to eight.

After the Falklands, Byrnes and colleagues have plans for future campaigns. They want to look at areas where kelp is at the edge of its temperature limits, such as in Baja and Northern Chile, and study kelp forests around cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

“In the UK and Japan some species are marching north as waters warm. That movement is a troubling trend. But we don’t know if this is occurring at the other range edges of giant kelp. If we are not seeing movement in other areas we would have to dig in and ask why,” Byrnes said.

You can get started counting giant kelp at http://floatingforests.org.

About UMass Boston
The University of Massachusetts Boston is deeply rooted in the city's history, yet poised to address the challenges of the future. Recognized for innovative research, metropolitan Boston’s public university offers its diverse student population both an intimate learning environment and the rich experience of a great American city. UMass Boston’s 11 colleges and graduate schools serve nearly 17,000 students while engaging local and global constituents through academic programs, research centers, and public service. To learn more, visit www.umb.edu.

Tags: biology , citizen science , jarrett byrnes , kelp

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