Help scientists find floating forests of kelp

A citizen-science project needs people to spot seaweed from space images

Beds of kelp (left); satellite image (right)

Beds of kelp (left) are dense enough to be seen from space. The green smear off Carmel, Calif., in the satellite image (right) is what Floating Forests volunteers look for.


Although some kelp beds are vast enough to be visible from space, scientists lack long-term data on these forests of seaweed and how their abundance has changed over time. Researchers — from the Kelp Ecosystem Ecology Network, the Santa Barbara Coastal Long-Term Ecological Research Project and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis — have designed a citizen science project called Floating Forests to help.

It’s a website that relies on volunteers to search through images taken over the last 30 years by NASA’s Landsat satellites and identify kelp beds. The task requires a human eye. Project member Jarrett Byrnes of the University of Massachusetts in Boston says computers just aren’t sensitive enough to spot green blurs in a blue ocean. Sometimes clouds obscure the view and many pictures go by with no sign of kelp. But once you see the telltale green masses and outline them carefully with your computer mouse, you’ve just got to find more. Marked images will help scientists monitor kelp, which serve as both food and home for a plethora of marine creatures. The data may also offer insights on everything from kelp fisheries to how ocean circulation affects the seaweed. 

Bethany was previously the staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology from Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

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