Sea Change

The kelp forests along the Pacific coastline provide a rich habitat for marine species, ranging from microscopic algae to marine mammals. They also offer a dynamic place to study environmental change for Kristy Kroeker, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, who received a five-year, $875,000 Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering.

In previous research Kroeker found that increasing acidification and temperature altered algae populations. In turn, these changes affected the animals that live and feed on the algae and, ultimately, the resilience of rocky reef ecosystems.

Now, she’ll place ocean sensors from Baja California to Alaska to track changing carbonate chemistry, oxygen, and temperature levels. She’ll follow the corresponding changes in the algae and marine herbivores.

In addition, Kroeker is experimenting with small granite tiles that provide blank slates for algae, coralline algae, and small grazers to establish themselves. Watching these communities build themselves will improve understanding about how kelp beds come back after big storms, and the ways environmental changes might affect these dynamics.

“These are simple ecological experiments in succession and species interactions­—except that we’re doing them across thousands of kilometers,” said Kroeker.