Kelp’s Nutrition Under Rising Temperatures and The Importance of Long-Term Data

Illustration by Bridget Rios

Eric Kwon

Science & Technology Editor 

The impacts of the climate change crisis have been known for a while — hotter climates, increased drought, increased frequency of natural disasters — but the more nuanced effects of climate change have not been taken into consideration. 

In an interview with The Bottom Line, researchers Heili Lowman, current postdoctoral researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno, and former graduate student at UC Santa Barbara (in conjunction with the Santa Barbara Coastal Long Term Ecological Research Project LTER); and Kyle Emery, graduate student at UC Santa Barbara, discussed their research findings on the relationship between warming ocean temperatures and decreased nutritional quality in giant kelp.

In conducting their research, Lowman and Emery recorded correlations with decreased nutritional quality in giant kelp as ocean temperatures rose. According to their paper, the results also “suggest that the consequences of projected declines in kelp abundance due to climate change may be compounded by reductions in its nutritional quality.” As kelp forests are important food sources and habitats for marine wildlife, particularly in the West Coast, their conclusions on kelp have significant implications. 

Questions arise on how exactly giant kelp consumers will react to their food’s changing nutrition, which could have either positive or negative consequences. There are questions as to how consumers higher up in the food chain will react. Emery remarked, “How would this impact consumers in the kelp forests like a sea urchin versus how it affects consumers on the beach?” 

The implications of their findings also raise more questions about the changing nature of kelp that have yet to be explained. As Lowman said, “[t]his is only scratching the surface as to what the possible explanations might be … and other potential factors that might explain why the nutrition [of kelp] is changing.”

In reflection of these findings, they hope more long-term data will be conducted. Emery emphasized, “[t]here is very little data like this. There are very few data sets that extend beyond a year with this type of information.” He extended the importance of long-term data to other oceanic organisms, where “other health species out there are important in really similar ways” that cannot, without long-term data, be linked to “temperature or anything else because they’re from a singular observation.”

In fact, their interest in this project was sparked by having long-term data available. Lowman mentioned that she had noticed there was a fair amount of nutritional data done in terrestrial systems and was curious about the aquatic side. Thankfully the SBC LTER had a data set that they could use, one which Lowman described as “one of those data sets that kind of lands in your lap.”

Though the process was smooth for the most part, the absence of others using the data set caused slight challenges. “Usually if you’re using such a large data set, it’s helpful to be able to talk to someone who has used it before and knows if there’s something wonky,” Lowman said. 

The researchers wanted the resource to be utilized and pointed readers to the data set in their paper, which is, surprisingly, public. This way, it may have a greater likelihood of being used in studies for the future which in turn, would further their findings on kelp and hopefully answer some questions that they posed. Their study can be found in the ecological journal Oikos. Lowman and Emery attributed their research to collaborators Jenifer Dugan and Bob Miller.

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