Climate change isn’t my normal beat, but I’ll make an exception for some of the cutest little creatures in the animal kingdom. Turns out they are busy little beavers maintaining kelp forests, and like beavers, their efforts help everyone:
A recent study in the journal PLOS Climate, led by researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, details how southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris) off the coast of California have helped kelp forests remain resilient to the impacts of climate change. First the scientists analyzed US government records that inventoried California kelp forests as far back as 1910, compared them with modern information about those same kelp forests today. Then they used a machine learning framework to ascertain and rank the factors that have altered kelp forest density since 1910.
The results were intriguing: While kelp forests suffered dramatic losses along the Northern and Southern coastlines, they had increased in abundance in central California. That is because this is the only region where, despite attempts to hunt them to extinction in pursuit of their fur, southern sea otters have managed to carry on. In fact, in the places where kelp forests were most healthy, otter population densities were at their highest.
Who would hunt these animals? Heartless monsters.
In terms of fighting climate change, this is quite beneficial as well. Kelp forests contribute immensely to carbon storage and thereby offset the negative impact of humanity's greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, kelp forests all over the world capture 4.5 million tons of carbon dioxide from seawater each year. In addition to this benefit, kelp forests aren't just a metaphor — they really are complex ecosystems home to a variety of lifeforms not unlike a forest on the surface world. During storms, kelp forests shield the coast from destructive erosion, and they also can act as nursery grounds for fisheries. Southern sea otters engage in a number of natural behaviors that help preserve these underwater forests wherever they inhabit — and this is a trend that exists beyond the California coastline.
If you’re ever in California, I recommend visiting the central coast and seeing these fun little animals. They’re as cute as advertised.