At one point, extensive underwater kelp forests extended throughout Puget Sound in Washington and throughout the Pacific Northwest. Those inside the Sound have been in significant decline over the past few decades, in addition to the rich marine ecosystem these forests sustain. Nowadays, a collaborative effort between local tribes, citizen scientists, environmental groups and academic researchers aims to prevent further loss and understand how and why these forests should be restored.
Whilst the reason for decline is not clear, climate change is strongly implicated, in addition to sedimentation and water quality. Kelp is fast growing, up to 2 feet a day, locking away carbon from the atmosphere. The carbon in kelp has in turn been found in their associated microbiomes and other members of the food chain. Restoring this invaluable ecosystem starts with kelp, and efforts are underway to understand how certain forests thrive and recreating those conditions in areas where they have been lost.
TMC director Cathy Pfister's Lab has been comparing plants from these flourishing and struggling areas, noting differences in their respective microbial communities. "The idea is to look for physiological and metabolic differences or shifts in the microbial communities that live on the kelp and might be as crucial to plant health as gut microbes are to human health".
The goal is to help kelp reproduce on their own and some kelp transplants from thriving forests have been successful . This is helping excite interest in 'blue carbon', including whether or not kelp farming can be utilized to counteract climate change by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and buffering acidification. The ability of such kelp farms to make a difference at scale is unclear. For now, protecting existing kelp and expanding restoration is agreed upon as the cheapest and most tractable solution.
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