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Sea-ing Change

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By Cameron Vernali '20

Published Jan 22, 2018 10:00 AM


Thousands of citizen-scientists are helping researchers save kelp forests, thanks to a UCLA geography professor.


A kelp forest found off of the California coast. Courtesy of Ron McPeak.

Kelp forests, like other fragile ecosystems on Earth, are constantly changing in response to climate. "They are highly sensitive to changes in environmental conditions,” says Kyle Cavanaugh, a professor of geography in the UCLA College and a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Yet, the kelp forests are also high achievers. Cavanaugh calls them “ecosystem engineers” that provide “both food and habitat for incredibly diverse and productive near-shore ecosystems.”

While scientists have been tracking the kelp forests on their own, there’s now a new way to stay on top of the kelp developments, through the help of thousands of citizen-scientists.

Researchers from UCLA and seven other universities have recently re-launched Floating Forests, a website where citizen-scientist volunteers can see hundreds of thousands of satellite images to identify where the kelp forests skim the ocean surface.

Widespread collaboration was not always prevalent in mapping kelp forests -- traditionally a more individual undertaking; however, this solitary approach limited the information recorded and observed.

Cavanaugh had an idea about how to maximize this effort. He realized that he could use satellite images from NASA’s Landsat program, which takes photographs every 16 days, to track kelp forests. The data is collected in visible and near-infrared light, which is ideal for viewing kelp because water absorbs near-infrared energy and plants reflect it. After Cavanaugh and Jarrett Byrnes, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, received funding from a nonprofit called Zooniverse, the website was ready for use by the public.

Floating Forests began in 2014, but was re-launched this past December. By the beginning of January, more than 8,000 subjects and 950 volunteers made over 25,000 classifications. The new version of the website features stronger color contrast and image filters, which helps volunteers when they identify kelp in the images.

Volunteer citizen-scientists receive satellite images of water and have to outline what they perceive as a kelp forest in the image. If one citizen-scientist sees a kelp forest, that image is shown to 15 others for verification. An image that is seen by four volunteers, none of whom sees kelp, is discarded.

“We hope to track global trends in the abundance of giant kelp forests and identify regions that have experienced significant declines in kelp,” said Cavanaugh.

The new version of Floating Forests also enables Cavanaugh and other scientists to add new regions. A new addition to the website included 5,000 images of the waters around the Falkland Islands, off the South America coast. The researchers hope to add more locations — such as the coasts of northern Chile, Japan and Baja California — in the coming months.

To view the original article from the UCLA Newsroom, visit https://ucla.in/2Dge4OJ.

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