A marine heatwave has wiped out Australia's underwater forest. The kelp forest has shown no signs of recovery in the past five years.
The underwater kelp forest that was once flourishing along the Western Australia coast is now dead. A severe heatwave struck the region in 2011 and left nothing but devastation in its wake.
The heatwave continued for more than two months and brought radical changes in the structure of the local ecosystem. As a result, the kelp forest that stretches around 100 kilometers of the coastline of Western Australia was wiped out entirely and has showed no signs of recovery ever since. Instead the kelp forest and the marine life inside it is being replaced by subtropical and tropical reefs and species.
“Off the coast around Kalbarri to Geraldton, where these reefs used to be dominated by kelp forests, those forests have completely disappeared,” said research co-author Dr Scott Bennett.
“A lot of the fish and invertebrates have disappeared and we’ve seen these communities shift to something that resembles the tropical fish and seaweed communities we would find at Ningaloo (coral reef in Western Australia).”
Kelps are large brow algae that bloom in relatively cool, shallow waters close to the shore. They can grow much like trees on land and can extend up to 18 inches per day. Like their counterparts on land, kelp forests are important ecosystems and harbor diverse marine species which are found nowhere else on the Earth.
Kelp forests cover a large section of Australia’s Great Southern Reef, that overall stretches more than 1,400 miles, from Brisbane in eastern Australia to Kalbarri above Perth in Western Australia. And their disappearance can lead to devastating consequences.
“Kelp forests, are the biological engine of Australia’s Great Southern Reef, where they support globally unique temperate marine biodiversity, some of the most valuable fisheries in Australia and reef-related tourism worth over $10 billion per year.” Lead author Thomas Wemberg from University of Western Australia said.
Wemberg and his colleagues surveyed reefs along 2,000 kilometres of the Western Australian coastline between 2001 and 2015 to assess the damage and found that heatwave combined with decades of ocean warming has wreaked havoc on most of the kelp forests there.
The most disappointing thing is that the situation is irreversible.
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Coauthor Bennett says. “Recovery is unlikely because of the large grazing pressure, continued warming and the likelihood of more heatwaves in the future.”