Citizen Science

Visit Floating Forests: No Scuba Lessons Required

September 16, 2014

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The view underwater off Anacapa Island of a kelp (macrocystis) forest. Kelp are threatened by climate change. Photo credit: © Ian Shive

For an inside look at the magic of kelp forests, visit TALK

What is Floating Forests?

Would you like to see the ocean from space? And look back through time?

Welcome to Floating Forests, a citizen science project that’s studying kelp — which is much more critical to life than most people realize — it supports entire ecosystems that span 25% of the world’s coasts and provides us with food.

And you don’t have to be a diver or even get wet to participate. Just log on to Floating Forests right now, wherever you are, through Zooniverse, a collection of citizen science projects.

Food and More (For Us, Too): Why is Kelp Important?

Floating Forests looks at Giant Kelp, a variety of kelp that can grow up to a foot a day (yes, a foot a day).

As the project’s title suggests, Giant Kelp is like a great underwater forest. And just like a forest, it supports a broad variety of life.

Some sea creatures, such as shrimp and sea urchins, eat the kelp, others, like rockfish and grey whales, hide in its shade, and still others, like sea lions and gulls, come to find prey.

And you might be surprised to learn how many of your favorite foods, like ice cream and pudding, wouldn’t be the same without kelp.

Healthy kelp forests contribute a great deal to the economy through their support of fisheries and through the harvest of kelp for use in foods and other products.

Floating Forests: Data on Giant Kelp Since 1984

In order to protect kelp forests, scientists need to understand trends in kelp forest growth and location.

But collecting data directly from kelp forests takes up time and often involves sampling in just one area. It can be hard to see the forest for the trees, as it were.

That’s where Floating Forests steps in; they have gathered global satellite data going back to 1984 that shows kelp forests. That’s right: kelp forests are so big, you can see them from space.

“From a scientific perspective, this project allows for the generation of a treasure trove of data on kelp canopy distribution and density globally, which will allow for a better understanding how these important coastal foundation species have shifted in the past 30 years and to make predictions about future distributions,” says Alison Haupt, one of the scientists working on the project.

“Hopefully these data may provide an avenue to predict future change in kelp forest ecosystems or help us better plan coastal development to minimize impacts on these ecologically and economically important ecosystems,” she adds.

Floating Forests is also a great learning experience for all ages. There is a guide for teachers interested in introducing Floating Forests to their classroom.

“The project is still pretty new, but I’ve been really floored so far just by how many people are excited to participate!” Haupt says. “I’ve been impressed by the conversations going on behind the scenes by the participants: both the scientific and intellectual curiosity and also the level of concern about attention to detail and concern about quality of data being collected.” 

How Do You Get Involved?

Visit the Floating Forests classification page. You can jump right in and start classifying or sign up for a Zooniverse account to track your progress.

There is a tutorial that teaches you how to identify kelp forests in satellite images, a discussion forum in case you get stuck or notice something cool to share, and a blog with updates on the project.

How often do you get a chance to view the Earth of 30 years ago from space and discover new things about an important ecosystem? Give it a try!

Then come back and let us know what you learned in the comments.


Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at]tnc.org with information about the project or leave a comment below with a link.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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