You Can Help Scientists Track Giant Kelp From Space!

Anna Pinkert | August 12, 2014
Jarrett Byrnes, biology professor at UMass Boston

Jarrett Byrnes, biology professor at UMass Boston
Image by: Christian Arthur

Jarrett Byrnes, assistant professor of biology at UMass Boston, wants you to take part in his latest marine ecology research – and you don’t even have to get your feet wet. Byrnes, along with colleagues from California, Portugal, and Chile, is trying to find out whether climate change is having an impact on giant kelp forests. To do that, he needs citizen scientists to identify these green patches of kelp forest – from space.

In satellite photos, giant kelp forests show up as little green blobs in a big blue ocean. What we’re actually seeing is the kelp forest canopy floating on the surface of the water. According to Byrnes, “Giant kelp is an incredible species. It can grow up to a foot a day, and forms these huge, beautiful redwood-like forests. If it’s just recovering from a storm, it’s like going through a jungle.” Giant kelp provides habitat for otters, fish, and crustaceans, and requires colder water to thrive. Byrnes wants to know if warming ocean waters will cause these important ecosystems to change.


Byrnes and his collaborator Kyle Cavanaugh of UCLA have collected satellite images from NASA Landsat satellites that go back to the 1980’s and include images of kelp canopies floating on the surface. This 30-year record could tell scientists a lot about how kelp forests have fared through the last three decades of climate change. But, since the kelp forests are at the very edge of what the satellites can view, the researchers decided to turn to the public for help. “Computers have trouble distinguishing between sea foam and a kelp forest. To the human eye, it’s easy to see the difference,” says Byrnes.

As a result, Byrnes and Cavanaugh developed Floating Forests, a website where citizen scientists can help to identify these patches of kelp forest, one satellite image at a time. Identifying the kelp forests is incredibly simple: click to get a new photo, circle the kelp, and submit the result to the research team. Floating Forests is hosted by Zooniverse, which has previously supported citizen science projects that allow users to track wildlife on a preserve or count galaxies. On the website, visitors can also interact with the project scientists, and ask questions about ocean life.

For now, visitors to Floating Forests will investigate thousands of images from giant kelp forests around the world. Byrnes hopes that Floating Forests will help non-scientists engage with marine ecology.

Watch a video with Jarrett Byrnes to learn more about this project.

Tags: biology , byrnes , citizen science , csm , ecology , floating forests , kelp , marine , ocean , stem

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