Preventing Ecosystem Collapse: Alaska’s Kelp Forests

By Jim Steele

What’s Natural?

Over the past few years the media, such as the NY Times, have hyped a coming apocalypse and an existential crisis as ecosystems collapse. Inside Climate News, one of the more egregious fear mongers suggests “Global Warming Could Collapse Whole Ecosystems, Maybe Within 10 Years”. In contrast, most scientists agree ecosystems are very complex and still not well understood. By understanding each ecosystem’s unique pressures from humans, other organisms and natural climate change, perhaps we can make ecosystems more resilient and prevent the alleged “crises”.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the foremost scientific organization evaluating threats to species and ecosystems, has created the “Red List of Ecosystems” that provides assessments that characterize threats to individual ecosystems.  To date, only one ecosystem has collapsed, central Asia’s Aral Sea. It’s the world’s fourth largest inland water body. Landlocked, its fate is determined by the balance between inflowing water and evaporation. But 2000 years of irrigation has disrupted that balance. Between 1950 and 2007, irrigation nearly quadrupled causing the Aral Sea to largely dry up, eliminating most of its species. The Aral Sea has been sacrificed in order to feed a growing population.  However most other ecosystems have a more optimistic future.

The first IUCN Endangered ecosystem I’ll examine in a series of articles is Alaska’s giant kelp forests. The fate of kelp forests is largely determined by the interactions between urchins, otters, humans and killer whales.  Hungry kelp-eating urchins can quickly convert a kelp forest into an urchin barren stripped of kelp. However, urchins are regulated by their primary predator, sea otters. Before Alaska’s fur trade began in the mid 1700s, otter populations and kelp forests flourished. One hundred and fifty years later overhunting exterminated or reduced all otter populations, urchins proliferated, and kelp forests declined. Alarmed, a 1911 international treaty forbade hunting otters. To further their recovery, otters were re-introduced to islands where they had been eliminated. With improved human stewardship, otters rebounded to their pre-hunting abundance by 1980. With fewer urchins, kelp forests flourished again. But then killer whales began overhunting otters.

Each killer whale population has a specialized feeding strategy. Some strictly eat fish while others feed on marine mammals. Some congregate around Alaska’s eastern Aleutian Islands near Unimak pass to prey upon migrating gray whale calves. In the 1980s some killer whales began reducing Steller sea lion and harbor seal populations along Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. An autopsy of one killer whale revealed 14 research tags originally attached to endangered Steller sea lions. As seal and sea lion populations declined, killer whales increased their intake of otters, which allowed urchins to again multiply. 

Between 1980 and 2000 otter populations declined by 50% to 80% and kelp forests declined by 50%. Those declines prompted the designation of kelp forests as Endangered and possibly Critically Endangered. However more recent surveys evoke hope. Along the coast of Alaska from the peninsula south, otter populations have been steadily increasing at a rate of 12-14% a year and there, kelp forests dominate. However depleted otter populations throughout Alaska’s Aleutian Islands still remain at 50% of their 1980 abundance. There, with fewer otters sea urchin barrens became more common.

Range of Alaska’s kelp forests: From the Aleutian Islands in the west to southeast Alaska.

Although these biological interactions control ecosystem shifts between kelp forests and urchin barrens, climate factors play a role, and in a most positive way. Otters are limited by ice. In places like Glacier Bay where ice has retreated, otter habitat is expanding. Likewise, kelp benefit from less sun-blocking ice while greater concentrations of carbon dioxide enhance photosynthesis and promote more growth. Life is good.

Jim Steele is Director emeritus of San Francisco State’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus, authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism, and a member of the CO2 Coalition

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December 4, 2020 6:32 pm

Wasn’t Australian climate carpetbagger Tim Flannery spruiking kelp forests as the ‘solution’ to taking CO2 out of the atmosphere?

(Bad luck Timbo – looks like Gaia has gazumped you on this ‘cunning plan’)

Joel O'Bryan(@joelobryan)
December 4, 2020 6:42 pm

The exploitation of natural cycles has for 30 years now been academic rent-seekers stock-in-trade.

-Stratospheric ozone waxing and waning
-Polar sea ice waxing and waning
-GBR bleaching events
– kelp forest declines, urchin expansions, otter populations
-seal populations, and Polar bears
-walrus populations and polar bears

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
December 4, 2020 8:12 pm

”GBR bleaching events”

You should have seen ”The Reef” on ABC last night. It was painful too watch but I couldn’t stop. (grinding my teeth the whole time……)
The rent seekers were droning on and on and on about the bleaching, how ”half the reef was dead” how they were ”breeding hybrid corals that ”might” be more heat tolerant” (why not just go to PNG to find them? – or does that not use enough funding?), how they were putting shade over turtle nests to ”make more females” and on and on. The arrogance that these people – who have been on this planet for five minutes – in believing they have 1, the ability to improve and 2, the need to intervene in these natural systems that have been around for longer than their wet little minds can even imagine! It is simply extraordinary.
Also, I notice that the huge majority of the workers are post graduate girls. Hmmmm??
Forgive me if I detect some misplaced, wide-eyed romanticism infiltrating the ”science”. Their language certainly has fairytale-like overtones. Their ”leaders” are no less sugary. I worry about the future, but not that of the reef.

Joel O'Bryan(@joelobryan)
Reply to  Mike
December 4, 2020 9:33 pm

Pretty-faced tyrants will be the death of Western Democracies.
Not just of the female persuasion either… J Trudeau. The pretty boy selling his Oh-Canada down the river, just like his father before him… from what I’m told.

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
December 5, 2020 7:05 am

In the UK we have the Prime Minister’s girlfriend AKA Princess Nut Nut, a true believer in the cult of Gaia, running the country

Gary Pearse
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
December 6, 2020 12:20 pm

The “caring” gender in politics is moving us ever leftward. Of course we can point to Thatcher, Golda Meir, Indira Gandi, Benazir Bhutto … but most are true nanny gov material I’m afraid. Look at the present crop of governors and mayors.

Reply to  Mike
December 4, 2020 10:24 pm

Hi Mike,
The Turnbull Government splashed out $444 Million in 2018 to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. At the time the GBRF had just six staff.

If you hire postgraduate girls at $50,000 per year you can get about 9000 for a year or about 2000 for five years.

This probably explains the proliferation of girl researchers on the reef, most of them very good looking I noticed.

It was interesting comparing the scenes of a reef in evidently magnificent health with the overlaid commentary of “critical endangerment”.

Reply to  Ian Edmonds
December 4, 2020 11:10 pm

Hi Ian.

Indeed! It just keeps on coming…..

”Research to protect and preserve the Great Barrier Reef
23 November 2020

Joint media release with the Minister for Education, The Hon Dan Tehan MP, and Member for Dawson, George Christensen MP.

North Queensland’s iconic Great Barrier Reef will be better protected thanks to the Morrison Government’s investment in a $36.3 million research facility near Townsville.”’


a confidence game or other fraudulent scheme, especially for making a quick profit; swindle.
verb (used with object), scammed, scam·ming.
to cheat or defraud with a scam.

Reply to  Ian Edmonds
December 5, 2020 2:17 am

“most of them very good looking I noticed.”

comment image

Pretty cute, I’ll give you that !! 😎

Climate believer
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
December 5, 2020 2:37 am

Not to mention Insects.

Clyde Spencer
December 4, 2020 8:44 pm

Jim Steele
I want to say that I appreciate your level-headed approach to these complex ecosystem issues and look forward to reading them. Biology is not my strong suit, but I find that your analyses always mesh with my understanding of the way that Nature works. It is refreshing to read things without the hyperbole and alarmist warnings. Would it were that professional journalists and all science writers were as objective and factual as you.

December 4, 2020 9:14 pm

They have to keep pumping out the end of the world stories to try and keep interest up. In Australia this week we had the usual the reef is doomed trotted out which the usually MSM suspects all pushed. Fire season fast approaching so the endangered species and Koala’s should get an outing next.

Peta of Newark
December 4, 2020 10:30 pm

Very lovely.

2 not so minor quibbles.
1) Quote:
“To date, only one ecosystem has collapsed…..causing the Aral Sea to largely dry up…..”

From the Wiki:
Lake Bakhtegan is now completely dry due to the dams built on the Kor River by the government.

2) Quote:
“greater concentrations of carbon dioxide enhance photosynthesis and promote more growth”

This may, in fact does, happen inside the highly fertile situations of commercial glasshouses. The soil/compost/temperature and nutrient supplies are all made to be more than sufficient for the plants being grown.
Carbon dioxide is thus ‘forced’ into being the Liebig Limiter so that when more is added, plant growth increases.
Plants out in the wild are not so pampered.
Their limiter is Nitrogen for land based plants and typically Iron in the water.
In both situations tho, a little extra Potassium and Phosphorus plus myriad trace elements don’t go astray

The farmers around the world oblige – raising dust behind their tillage machines and from (all) the bare soil they leave lying around. Also run-off from their fields.
Not to mention people everywhere, with their pyromaniac urges. All that soot, ash and more dust is fantastic fertiliser even before the NOx and sulphur oxides are included. (Yes California, I’m looking at you)

Does no-one ever wonder why road-side verges (at least here in the UK) are always so verdant and overgrown.
Cars = Epic fertilising machines. At least ICE cars, will electric ones be as good?

More research is needed……..
(Government (haha) scientists and others with an Agenda need *NOT* apply)

Reply to  Peta of Newark
December 5, 2020 11:07 am


Thanks for adding Lake Bakhtegan

I don’t doubt other lakes have suffered a collapse by being drained dry for irrigation and drinking water. Mono Lake and Owens Lake here in California have been similarly threatened. I was going to address other lakes in the article but I am limited to the number of words for the newspaper

I was simply going by the IUCN’s assessments and they only listed one collapsed ecosystem which means that was their only assessments.

December 5, 2020 12:15 am

The kelp forests off Tasmania are gone or going: due to warming. Look it up!

Ben Vorlich
Reply to  griff
December 5, 2020 6:15 am

What else would a researcher wanting to extend his income for a few more years blame it on? What better way of attracting customers to a diving holiday than claiming that, if you don’t come soon, it’ll be gone forever.

You alarmists have forgotten this (as have a large chunk of the population unfortunately)

Reply to  Ben Vorlich
December 5, 2020 10:23 am

Griff certainly is not ashamed to expose his ignorance. The Tasmanian kelp forests have been denuded by increasing urchins just as in Alaska. First overfishing of urchin eating species such as the spiny lobster, have allowed an increase in urchins and is clearly one factor. Second the East Australian current has extended further south bring warmer waters and another species of sea urchin to feed on the kelp. The warmer water is simply a factor of more tropical water being pushed southward, and studies show the current has oscillated for at least 300 years.

Why are stupid trolls like Griff so ignorant of the science?

Climate believer
Reply to  Jim Steele
December 5, 2020 11:18 am

Look it up!…….. and when you do, you will find exactly what Mr Steele has explained above.

Maybe you get a different result if you use™

Reply to  griff
December 5, 2020 9:55 am

Flat lie, griff. The temperature range that kelp grows in is about 42F to 72F. The low and high sea temperatures over the entire year are well within that range off the eastern coast of Tasmania where the kelp forests are – the ocean would have to warm about 5 or 6 degrees F to kill the kelp. At the current (average) rate of ocean surface warming (a tiny 0.6 degrees F per CENTURY) it will be about 500 to 1000 years before ocean warming will cause kelp forests to move appreciably toward the southern part of Tasmania. Not die off completely, slowly move to waters that are now too cold for kelp. The trouble for you brain dead Alarmists is you blame LOCAL phenomena on global warming even if that LOCAL phenomena isn’t GLOBAL. The truth is that the oceans are heating at a rate so small it takes many precise temperature measurements to be taken over DECADES to even see the change. Since kelp has a very wide tolerance for temperature and survives short period wind-driven warm conditions (which have ALWAYS happened everywhere) it isn’t GLOBAL warming that’s killing the kelp in this LOCALITY.

Reply to  griff
December 5, 2020 10:35 am

So, totally NATURAL warming.

We know that human CO2 CANNOT heat oceans.

You have proven there is no evidence of that.

Reply to  griff
December 5, 2020 10:38 am

“due to warming.’… WRONG.

poor little griff..

caught MANUFACTURING A LIE… yet again. !

Moderately Cross of East Anglia
December 5, 2020 1:40 am

But the same effect is noticeable elsewhere, not just roadside verges. A while back I noticed someone had done a modern version of the (in England) quite famous condensed one minute film of a train journey from London Victoria to Brighton station. Looking at the modern film it struck me how much more trackside trees and vegetation was evident. I rewatched the original 1940s (or thereabouts) film and checked to make sure I wasn’t imagining the difference. It was clear that there really is much more plant growth in recent times – which may of course have several explanations, but overall in no doubt. This is a good thing, yes?

Jeffrey H Kreiley
December 5, 2020 5:29 am

. To date, only one ecosystem has collapsed, central Asia’s Aral Sea. It’s the world’s fourth largest inland water body. Landlocked, its fate is determined by the balance between inflowing water and evaporation. But 2000 years of irrigation has disrupted that balance. Between 1950 and 2007, irrigation nearly quadrupled causing the Aral Sea to largely dry up, eliminating most of its species. The Aral Sea has been sacrificed in order to feed a growing population. However most other ecosystems have a more optimistic future.

Didn’t that happen under the loving hand of Communism?

Ben Vorlich
Reply to  Jeffrey H Kreiley
December 5, 2020 6:26 am

I thought that it was an early great Soviet ideas growing cotton (white gold) and using water from the rivers into the Aral Sea to irrigate the crop, starting in the 1920s and expanded in the 1930s and leading to the collapse. A lot of the population of Uzbekistan rely on cotton which remains one of the world’s major cotton exporters, so recovery seems unlikely in the near or medium term future

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