Global Impacts of Climate Change on Kelp Forest Ecosystems

Principal Investigator(s): 

Jarrett Byrnes, Sean Connell, and Mark Novak


Nearly one quarter of the world’s coastlines are dominated by the highly productive brown algae we know as kelp. Kelps serve a myriad of roles for humans – from providing food to sheltering shorelines from stormy waves. The startling diversity of life that dwells in these kelp forests provides joy to avid divers, fishers, and diners around the planet.

But how will these kelp forests fare in the face of climate change?

To answer this question, we are bringing together a team of international scientists who have studied these systems for decades. With data from the last century of surveys, experiments, and satellite measurements in hand, we will create a set of predictions as to how kelp forests will change in the future. These predictions will help guide the future study of kelp forests in a changing ocean.

UDPATE: October 2013

The kelp forests and climate change working group has now completed our two NCEAS funded working group meetings. We are holding a third meeting at NCEAS around the annual Western Society of Naturalists meeting in November, and will be holding an additional session at the International Temperate Reefs Symposium for both NCEAS working group members as well as additional members from the outgrowth of the working group – the Kelp Ecosystem Ecology Network.

The group itself has spawned off seven separate products that are on track to be completed in the winter and spring of 2014. Two will be presented at the International Temperate Reefs Symposium in January (starred below), and two to three others will be presented at the Benthic Ecology Meetings in the spring of 2014. Datasets generated by synthetic efforts will be hosted at

Collaboration Outcomes:

Creation of a New Research Network: The Kelp Ecosystem Ecology Network - A group of approximately 50 kelp forest scientists are working together to create a global experimental and observational network to evaluate the effects of climate change in kelp forest ecosystems. Initial funding request submitted in August of 2013 to NSF.

Citizen Science Platform: A collaboration with Zooniverse to create a citizen science platform, “Floating Forests,” which will allow the public to review at Landsat photographs of coastal kelp-dominated areas around the globe from over a 30 year period (1983-2013). Citizens will be asked to help identify the location and size by simply circling the patches of kelp forest that are easily detected by the human eye, but difficult for a computer to distinguish from sea foam. Floating Forests will be launched August 7, 2014.

Works in Progress:

Global Synthesis of Climate Impacts on Kelp Forest Ecosystems (led by PI Byrnes)

Synthetic Review of Multiple Stressor Impacts on Kelp Forest Communities (led by PI Connell)

Rates of Change of Global Kelp Abundance over 35 Years (led by Postdoc Krumhansl) with accompanying dataset

Food Web Propagation of Climate Impacts in Kelp Forests Systems: A Qualitative Modeling Approach (led by PI Novak)

Theoretical Analysis of Interactions Between Climate Change and Multiple Local Stressors in Kelp Ecosystems (led by C. Johnson)*

Global Biogeography of Kelps (led by T. Wernberg) with accompanying dataset

Meta-analysis of Kelp Impacts on Fish Abundance (led by A. Perez-Matus)* with accompanying dataset


More information about this project, participants, publications and other outcomes.


This work is supported by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, a Center funded by NSF (Grant #EF-0553768), the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the State of California.