Our hidden forests

Mareike Babuder reveals the beauty and importance of a diverse and productive underwater ecosystem.

Photo by Nicole Miller

Seaweed form one of the most diverse and productive ecosystems on this planet, yet, with most of its beauty hidden below the surface; its importance often slips our attention.

Destruction of terrestrial forests often causes global sensation and outcries. We know about their importance as they provide a home and food sources for animals and their indispensable role for our climate. But what about underwater forests? By providing the same services to marine creatures, protecting coastlines by buffering strong currents and producing an estimated 330 billion tons of oxygen annually, the health of marine forests and their decline should be treated with equal importance and urgency.

Charles Darwin once wrote, “I can only compare these great aquatic forests… with terrestrial ones in the intertropical regions. Yet, if in any other country a forest was destroyed, I do not believe so many species of animals would perish as would here, from the destruction of kelp.”
It’s undeniable that the main cause for the decline of terrestrial and marine forests is us. Human induced climate-change, resulting in increasing storm frequencies, rising temperatures and heat waves as well as physical habitat destruction lead to dramatic irreversible declines of forests worldwide. And with their loss go their functions.

In the Sustainable Seas Tipping Points Challenge, marine researchers around New Zealand are unified to identify threats and tolerance limits of seaweed forests. My research at UC investigates the effects of light limitation, caused by high amounts of sediments in the water, and heat stress on seaweed health. A shift in species diversity and thereby ecosystem complexity with increasing heat stress or murkiness of water has already been observed in several places worldwide. I’m investigating now how combined and single effects of those stressors translate to productivity changes and find potential indicators for ecosystem collapse. This knowledge can then help to implement environmental thresholds and targets to ensure a healthy, diverse and well-functioning ecosystem everyone can benefit from.

Mareike Babuder is a PhD student in the Marine Ecology Research Group at the University of Canterbury. She’s an ocean, travel and photography enthusiast from Germany.
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