The rise of turfs—flattening of global kelp forests

January 18, 2018, University of Western Australia
The rise of turfs—flattening of global kelp forests
Credit: University of Western Australia

Research published today into the state of kelp forests around the world shows they are being degraded into flat seascapes carpeted by short, unwanted turf-algae – and the Western Australian coastline is one of the worst-affected areas.

It is the first time scientists have assessed the global extent of the transformation.

The research, carried out by UWA Oceans Institute Associate Professor Thomas Wernberg and Dr. Karen Filbee-Dexter from the Norwegian Institute for Water Research is published in the leading journal BioScience.

Professor Wernberg said that over the past two decades many kelp forests had collapsed and been replaced by rapidly growing mats of sediment packed turf algae.

"The underlying drivers vary from place to place but humans are the root cause. This is all comes back to how people affect the global and local environment," Professor Wernberg said.

"Most worryingly, these critical transitions can be very difficult to halt or reverse because climate change is pushing more and more kelp forests over the tipping point for collapse."

Dr. Filbee-Dexter said some of the worst affected areas included Western Australia, southern Norway and Atlantic Canada.

"Climate-driven marine heat waves, strong storms, expanding tropical herbivores, gradual warming temperatures, invasive species and nutrient pollution are some of drivers shifting kelp forests into degraded turf reefs," Dr. Filbee-Dexter said.

"The problem is, kelps thrive in cool water and ocean warming is stressing them, lowering their capacity to resist the many pressures they are facing."

Professor Wernberg said the socio-economic as well as ecological consequences of this global deforestation could be devastating.

"Kelp forests support ecosystem services such as biodiversity and fisheries resources worth up to almost $1 million per kilometre of coastline per year," he said.

"Our research is now changing from documenting kelp loss to discovering solutions to curbing the rise of turf and the flattening of our global forests.

"These active solutions are the only way forward if we want to maintain these unique and valuable ecosystems."

Explore further: Researcher says warmer waters in Nova Scotia 'ocean hotspot' killing off kelp forests

More information: Karen Filbee-Dexter et al. Rise of Turfs: A New Battlefront for Globally Declining Kelp Forests, BioScience (2017). DOI: 10.1093/biosci/bix147

Related Stories

Stop marine pollution to protect kelp forests

July 17, 2013

( —University of Adelaide marine biologists have found that reducing nutrient pollution in coastal marine environments should help protect kelp forests from the damaging effects of rising CO2.

Invasive fish threat to kelp forests

December 15, 2016

Seaweed-eating fish are becoming increasingly voracious as the ocean warms due to climate change and are responsible for the recent destruction of kelp forests off the NSW north coast near Coffs Harbour, research shows.

Recommended for you

How quinoa plants shed excess salt and thrive in saline soils

September 21, 2018

Barely heard of a couple of years ago, quinoa today is common on European supermarket shelves. The hardy plant thrives even in saline soils. Researchers from the University of Würzburg have now determined how the plant gets ...

Basking sharks can jump as high and as fast as great whites

September 20, 2018

A collaborative team of marine biologists has discovered that basking sharks, hundreds of which are found off the shores of Ireland, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Scotland, can jump as fast and as high out of the water as ...

Decoding the structure of an RNA-based CRISPR system

September 20, 2018

Over the past several years, CRISPR-Cas9 has moved beyond the lab bench and into the public zeitgeist. This gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 holds promise for correcting defects inside individual cells and potentially healing ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.