Mitigating climate change starts with you: It’s time to pay attention to our ocean and its kelp forests

purple sea urchins, an enemy of kelp forests
Purple sea urchins have wreaked havoc with kelp forests off the Northern California coast.
(Via Steve Lonhart / NOAA MBNMS)

With climate change in the spotlight thanks to the January 2023 storms, local environmental activist Dan Haifley reminds us of the important work happening at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, part of a national network of protected areas that fights climate change and pollution and protects biodiversity. That includes climate change research and preserving iconic kelp forests that reduce coastal erosion and absorb excess carbon from climate change.

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The punishing storms of January 2023 remind those of us who can remember of the 1982 and 1983 disasters that damaged our coastline, flooded streets and structures and unleashed mudslides, including a deadly one in Love Creek in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Like then, our community has, in the past trying weeks, come together in countless ways.

But today — so much more than decades ago — we are talking about how climate change is a factor in the weather phenomena we face.

The United States Geological Survey makes the point well on its website, saying, “With increasing global surface temperatures, the possibility of more droughts and increased intensity of storms will likely occur.”

“As more water vapor is evaporated into the atmosphere it becomes fuel for more powerful storms to develop. More heat in the atmosphere and warmer ocean surface temperatures can lead to increased wind speeds in tropical storms. Rising sea levels expose higher locations not usually subjected to the power of the sea and to the erosive forces of waves and currents.”

January’s powerful ocean swells, wind and rain smashed our piers, caused waterways to spill into low-lying areas and ripped up infrastructure and eroded cliffs, including West Cliff Drive. At Moran Lake County Park, the sea overtook the tiny pocket beach and a paved walkway. Seawater rushed through the culvert and over East Cliff Drive, creating a beach inside the lagoon.

We got a visual jolt — a strong warning of what climate change can do. How it can change our landscape.

And a reminder to act: to reduce the greenhouse gases we send into the atmosphere, and adapt ourselves and our built environment to the impacts that are both coming and already here.

One way to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to climate change is having a healthy ocean and wetlands.

Our ocean covers more than two-thirds of the earth, produces half the world’s oxygen (via plankton), absorbs excess atmospheric carbon and supplies food.

But we have put it under stress.

Take a walk on any beach this week and you will see evidence of that. It’s astonishing to see 12-foot-long redwood trunks, huge masses of tangled seaweed and the massive amounts of debris the ocean churned up and the rivers and creeks carried. It’s also shocking to see the garbage, including plastics, that now litters our beaches.

It’s a good reminder to us of the burden we place on our ocean — what we are forcing it to absorb. Tires, plastic refuse, candy wrappers, used needles.

The ocean also takes in carbon dioxide for us, helping eliminate greenhouse gases. But not without negative effects — like ocean acidification. This affects things like oyster aquaculture and food availability for salmon.

We have a national network of marine sanctuaries and marine national monuments whose professional teams conduct research, education and environmental protection. One of those is Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which encompasses 6,094 square miles from southern Marin County to northern San Luis Obispo County, and which I and others helped to establish 30 years ago. It is one of five sanctuaries off the West Coast, with the tribally nominated Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary off San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties poised to be the sixth.

Global warming has disrupted the delicate ecological dance of sea otters, urchins and kelp. But in Monterey Bay, small...

Scientists are studying acidification and ways climate change is affecting our ocean. For example, UC Santa Cruz scientists have received two research grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study impacts on marine life and improve adaptation to them in California’s national marine sanctuaries. Last year, UCSC also received $20 million in state funding to create a Center for Coastal Climate Resilience at the university.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s team and its partners have also been conducting pivotal climate change research. This includes restoring marshes, coordinating planning on coastal sediment management, measuring trends and impacts of oceanographic data on temperature, pH and oxygen levels and providing data to shipping and aquaculture businesses.

One of the species most sensitive to climate change is coral. The deep sea off of the California coast is naturally one of the ocean’s most acidic areas. Large and spectacular deep-sea corals have become the “canaries in the coal mine” for impacts of ocean acidification.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary has been working on this issue and teamed up to develop a deep-sea coral observatory on Sur Ridge (southwest of Monterey Bay) to study ways to restore deep-sea corals. Lessons learned from this research have developed deep-sea coral restoration techniques for damaged ecosystems and are building our understanding of carbon sequestration in this highly biodiverse ecosystem.

Iconic kelp fights climate change

Scientists are also looking at ways to restore iconic kelp forests, which provide habitat for the California sea otter, rockfish, crabs and numerous other species.

More robust kelp forests can help us adapt because their canopies dampen waves, protecting shorelines from erosion while absorbing CO2 through photosynthesis to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Some kelp is naturally deposited into the deep sea, sequestering carbon.

A paddleboarder cruises through the kelp beds off Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Scientists have been monitoring the status of kelp forests since 1984, providing a historic basis for understanding how they respond to stressors such as changes in temperature and informing future work in restoration and supporting healthy ecosystems in various stages of development.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s research activity panel is working on a comprehensive kelp plan and will receive input from the public through the sanctuary’s advisory council (which I am on). This work is occurring in concert with efforts by experts at the state and nongovernmental groups such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The project, for which the Monterey Bay chapter of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation is raising funds, will also build on work being done by a team of volunteer divers off the Monterey Peninsula to restore kelp forests.

Restoration and preservation of kelp is practical and necessary, but unfortunately it and other efforts won’t stop the advance of the ocean. But they can help keep it from getting worse.

At Moran Lake County Park, for example, a more robust wetland environment, which Santa Cruz County is planning to develop, would work in concert with a more resilient ocean, including a stronger kelp forest, to help buffer climate change impacts.

Looking at all our community has endured, one thing is clear: Climate change is real and we are right in its path.

But we can mitigate its impact. Being aware of the incredible work that resource managers, researchers and educators are doing in and close to our community is a start.

Getting involved and staying informed is easy.

It’s time for us all to care about the impact we are having on our ocean.

Dan Haifley was director of Save Our Shores from 1986 to 1993 and O’Neill Sea Odyssey from 1999 to 2019, and currently serves on the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Foundation board. Sanctuary Research Coordinator Andrew DeVogelaere assisted with this piece. Dan’s previous piece for Lookout, “You can help protect our oceans — here’s how,” ran in December. He can be reached at

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