Outside Catalina Island, kelp has been studied to save the planet

During a recent weekend in Two Harbors, a small town on the remote northern shores of Catalina Island, I donned a wetsuit strapped to some fins and set out in a kayak to explore the pristine bays around the island.

Flying through the frigid waters, I marveled at how light filtered through the healthy forests of giant kelp – a giant type of brown algae – and the electric orange Garibaldi fish fluttering among the large green spaces.

If you can stand freezing water, it is unreasonable to swim with kelp. But lately, people are starting to come up with all kinds of other ideas about what a miracle seaweed might be. For example, feeding millions of people, fueling planes, and absorbing enough carbon to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

But how meaningful is all of this, really? No one knows yet.

Kelp was ready for a close-up of it.

Kelp was ready for a close-up of it.

Courtesy of USC Wrigley Institute

When I return to the surface after a deep dive into a shimmering kelp forest, I raise my mask and take a look at one of the world’s most advanced kelp research stations, the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center, which also happens in front of a beautiful diving spot.

Here the world’s first “kelp elevator” was invented and recently showed that incredibly beneficial algae can thrive when grown at different depths. I very much wanted to know more about this, so I tracked down Andy Navarrete, a postdoctoral researcher who worked on the elevator project.

Navarrett grew up in Berkeley and developed a childhood obsession with the ocean when his parents took him to the local marina. He studied marine sciences at UCLA and completed his Ph.D. in evolutionary biology, which at times felt scarce and without practical applications.

“I wanted to do something that would make a bigger impact,” he says, and helping clear the way for kelp to save the planet ticked that box.

Off Parsons Landing on Catalina Island, senior scientist Diane Kim and postdoctoral researcher Andy Navarretti are studying a bed of kelp.

Off Parsons Landing on Catalina Island, senior scientist Diane Kim and postdoctoral researcher Andy Navarretti are studying a bed of kelp.

Courtesy of Maurice Roper / USC Wrigley Institute

Navarrete cold named a woman working on a kelp elevator project, and a few months later, he was part of the team, working in partnership with Marine BioEnergy, an open ocean kelp farm technology company, and later, the University of Southern California’s Nuzhdin Lab. Funding came from the US Department of Energy’s MARINER program to develop seaweed cultivation for biofuels and bioproducts.

For those who haven’t heard of why kelp is the future, here’s the deal: With climate change happening at its worst, access to fresh water and arable land will be increasingly difficult. However, Earth’s vast oceans will remain, where kelp is supposed to grow on an industrial scale, providing food and an environmentally friendly alternative to crude oil, along with significant carbon storage capabilities.

Kelp grows very quickly – even faster than bamboo. And while California’s kelp forests have been severely affected by extreme ocean warming and the abundance of hedgehogs in the area, kelp farms will not be subject to these conditions. Instead, they’ll be able to float freely from autonomous submarines, which will drag the farm across the ocean, adjusting its depth based on the kelp’s needs, Navarretti told me.

“The submarines can be programmed to bring the entire farm back to the harvest site,” he says.

To see if kelp farms could thrive in the open ocean, though, scientists needed to know how “deep cycling” affects growth. And this is where the kelp elevator entered.

Kelp fronds are beautiful to look at underwater and may save the planet.

Kelp fronds are beautiful to look at underwater and may save the planet.

Ashley Harrell

The lift consists of a large open platform characterized by tall columns from which kelp grows. The platform is connected to the buoy by a cable, and the hoist allows the system to be raised and lowered every day. The idea was to give the kelp the two things it needed: exposure to sunlight near the surface during the day, and time to absorb nutrients from the cold water below, at a depth of about 260 feet, at night.

Navarrete says scientists are divided over whether it will work. “Some people were really confident. Some people thought it was crazy. I was like, ‘I just don’t know,'” he says. “I gave him a 50-50 chance.”

The flourishing of kelp at different depths depends on two questions: Do changes in pressure damage the algae and prevent it from growing? And was the sunlight somehow facilitating the absorption of nutrients, which meant that the kelp would not be able to absorb the nutrients below?

The team was thrilled to discover that the answer to both of these questions was no.

Senior scientist Diane Kim conducts research on kelp ringworm.

Senior scientist Diane Kim conducts research on kelp ringworm.

Courtesy of Maurice Roper / USC Wrigley Institute

“When we got the first pictures from the divers, the kelp looked like it was growing, so that was very exciting,” Navarrete says. Once all the data had been collected, the scientists were amazed to see that kelp that was rotated in depth produced four times more biomass than kelp grown in ponds without deep cycles.

Their findings were published in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, and new phases of research are now looking at the growth rates and genetics of kelp and growing kelp from seedlings on the lift, rather than using cultivated kelp.

While it’s all very interesting, Navarret stresses that kelp farming still has a long way to go before it can save the planet. He’s seen a lot of “boost” from the business — already, companies are looking to buy carbon credits for farmed and drowned kelp, despite the fact that the method remains untested.

It’s been about scientists who question the promises of kelp but appreciate the money that comes in for research projects. Once again, Navarrete finds himself somewhere in the middle. He says, “I don’t know.” “Can it succeed?”

What we need now, he says, is a commercially viable way to increase production. Navarrete says it would help if people suddenly developed a taste for giant kelp, but until this point, few Americans have shown interest in eating it.

Whether or not kelp takes off and saves the world is anyone’s guess. But for now, while we still have a few California beaches, I highly recommend swimming with it.