What a gift that scientists based in our coastal community are studying the conditions under which kelp forests can thrive (“Seeing the Kelp Amid the Forest at UC Santa Barbara”). I’m all for better ice cream and better toothpaste to clean my teeth afterward. But what has me so enthusiastic about kelp is its ability to sequester massive amounts of excess carbon dioxide that humans have released into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Over the course of many thousands of years, our planet has dealt with natural fluctuations in atmospheric CO2 levels by capturing and sequestering carbon in forms such as limestone. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of time to simply let nature take its course in fixing what we broke. Thanks to Indigenous wisdom and modern scientific studies, though, we can accelerate key natural processes that will give us humans a chance to come out the other side of the climate crisis.
Under the right conditions, kelp grows ferociously and has nearly unlimited potential to scale. Kelp can pull carbon out of the atmosphere many times faster than trees. When it dies and sinks to the deep ocean floor, it takes that carbon with it, where it can remain sequestered for hundreds of years. It also brings numerous co-benefits to communities worldwide, including revitalized ocean ecosystems. In a scaled and managed system, some kelp can be harvested to make healthy contributions to local diets and provide fertilizer for land-based crops.
In order to restore our climate to pre-industrial levels of CO2 of less than 300 parts per million, we’re going to have to remove one trillion tons of excess CO2 from the atmosphere, in addition to making a rapid transition away from fossil fuels. Done correctly, kelp and other forms of macroalgae can make a major contribution to this goal.
As an ocean swimmer along the Santa Barbara coast, I used to encounter kelp patches and get scared about what lurks beneath, or annoyed at having to re-route my swim. Now I have learned to look out for these friendly forests and give them the respect and reverence they deserve for helping us to restore our climate.
Rick Wayman is CEO of the Foundation for Climate Restoration.