It’s a widely accepted theory that protecting and restoring forests on land will help mitigate climate change and improve air quality. But a new theory, in reaction to rising ocean acidification levels, takes a look at the jungles below the waves. Scientists are looking to kelp: giant brown algae that thrive in shallow, temperate seas and provide habitats for numerous species.

Ocean acidification is a pressing issue that is stripping the ocean of its life – bleaching corals, starving marine life and contaminating fish. Scientists believe that by sucking up carbon dioxide from seawater just like land plants do from air, kelp forests can help mitigate the nasty side effects of ocean acidification.

Professor Terrie Klinger, Director of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs of the University of Washington, plans to test this theory through “experimentally cultivating kelp at a site in Puget Sound, Washington”. As the kelp grows, the water chemistry will be tested to determine whether helpful changes occur.

“Kelps naturally consume carbon dioxide [CO2] in the process of photosynthesis. In areas with restricted flow [for example, bays and inlets and places like Puget Sound, Washington], it’s hypothesised that kelps might be able to consume enough CO2 to moderate local pH and reduce the local effects of CO2.”

Looking through the underwater jungle © Shutterstock

Looking through the underwater jungle © Shutterstock

Both climate change and ocean acidification are born from the same problem: a huge influx of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere due to burning fossil fuels and humans slashing terrestrial forests. This is, in turn, threatening the survival of many kinds of marine life, cutting the current food-chain to pieces by removing animals that have been within this global system for millennia.

If the theory is proven successful, then the next best step would be to renew efforts to maintain and protect natural stands of kelp – keeping what we already have. “After that, restoring kelp where it has been lost due to habitat degradation could make sense, followed by larger-scale cultivation in carefully selected areas.”

Amazingly, in this ever-acidifying underwater world, kelp does not seem to be negatively affected by declining pH – at least, not at the levels that are currently observed.

Kelp is currently grown for food in Asia and has long been used as fertilisers for agriculture in many regions. It’s a dark horse in terms of standing as an ocean super plant – also holding promise as being an effective biofuel – and if the theory proves true, then it could help save a dying ocean.