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Consequences of Climate Change: Kelp! Australia's Underwater Forest Wiped Out by Marine Heatwave

Jul 12, 2016 06:48 AM EDT
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Following the devastation in the Great Barrier Reef, scientists have found out that the underwater kelp forest in the Great Southern Reef has been wiped out due to a marine heatwave that warmed the sea.
(Photo : Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

After the massive coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, another devastating occurrence happened in Australia; this time, in the underwater kelp forest of the Great Southern Reef.

According to a study published in the journal Science, about 90 percent of the kelp forest off the western coast of Australia has been wiped off due to a marine heatwave between 2010 to 2013.

The kelp forest expands for more than 2,300 kilometers and is mainly made up of rocky reefs enveloped by kelp forests. However, due to the rapidly warming seas, the kelps have been replaced with seaweed turfs, corals, rabbitfish and parrotfish--tropical species that prevents the kelp from regrowing.

Dr. Thomas Wernberg, lead author of the study from the University of Western Australia, explained to The Guardian that the deadly marine heatwave resulted in a two-degree-Celcius increase in sea temperature. This caused the extinction of 370 square meters of the underwater forest.

Though not as popular as the Great Barrier Reef, the kelp forest plays a vital role in balancing the marine ecosystem as it is home to a rich variety of endemic species and Australia's $10-billion seafood industry.

Wernberg explained that the wipe-out and transition of the reef from a cooler to a tropical ecosystem is not beneficial as the kelp forest will be placed in an "intermediate stage where you have lots of small turf-forming seaweeds, so you lose the best parts of both systems."

“We take these systems for granted because they’re right in your backyard, in contrast to the Great Barrier Reef. This is a cool water, seaweed-dominated system that for a lot of reasons is less attractive," he explained.

Wernbeg stresses that people should be aware of what kelp forests contribute to the environment. In fact, Professor Craig Johnson from the University of Tasmania points out that the amount of endemic species in the Great Souther Reef is greater than those in the Great Barrier Reef.

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