- Title: Drone surveys of kelp show promise for researchers in California
- Date: 28th September 2021
- Summary: GUALALA, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES (SEPTEMBER 21, 2021) (REUTERS) VARIOUS OF SUNRISE OVER COAST HIGHWAY VARIOUS OF VIENNA SACCOMANNO, SCIENTIST AND DRONE PILOT WITH THE NATURE CONSERVANCY, SETTING UP DRONE VARIOUS OF DRONE TAKING OFF FROM GROUND AND HOVERING DRONE SHOT SHOWING SAUNDERS REEF (MUTE) VARIOUS DRONE SHOTS SHOWING KELP FROM ABOVE (MUTE) VIENNA SACCOMANNO, SCIENTIST AND DRONE PILOT WITH THE NATURE CONSERVANCY, LOOKING AT CONTROLS WHILE SAYING TO COLLEAGUES (English): "Ooh I like the live preview. That's cool." (SOUNDBITE) (English) VIENNA SACCOMANNO, SCIENTIST AND DRONE PILOT WITH THE NATURE CONSERVANCY, (SHOT STARTS ON DRONE CONTROL SCREEN), SAYING: "So we're starting to get some kelp, we've got a mixture of sea foam in there, but importantly, we can follow the drone here as it moves along what we call its lawnmower and the lawnmower-It follows these lines at the exact same altitude and it's taking many pictures as it goes. You can see the picture count here. And in the end, we're going to have one big photo of this priority kelp bed. And from there, we can run our kelp classification algorithm on that to say which of these pixels are kelp pixels and which of the pixels are not kelp pixels. And then from there you'll have a map and the map will show you exactly where in the ocean the kelp is and how much kelp there is." VARIOUS DRONE SHOTS OF KELP FOREST (MUTE) SAUNDERS REEF KELP FOREST (MUTE) (SOUNDBITE) (English) VIENNA SACCOMANNO, SCIENTIST AND DRONE PILOT WITH THE NATURE CONSERVANCY, SAYING: "It's incredible to be out here. 2019 was our first year of these surveys and we were basically surveying open water. There was just no kelp, literally, little to no kelp. And to be out here in 2021 and see this strong uptick in kelp is just so exciting as a scientist. And while we do know from recent satellite flyovers of this region that the current kelp canopy extent is still below that of the historical average kelp canopy extent, there is so much reason for hope and I personally am cautiously optimistic. We know that this ecosystem is still not fully in balance and there's still restoration work to be done. But seeing this kelp and these huge beds, this uptick, I'm feeling very encouraged."
- Embargoed: 12th October 2021 22:39
- Keywords: Nature Conservancy climate change climate science drones drones for science drones monitoring kelp kelp kelp conservation kelp forests
- Location: GUALALA, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES
- City: GUALALA, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES
- Country: US
- Topics: Climate Adaptation and Solution,Climate Change,Environment,General News,United States
- Reuters ID: LVA001EWNTVMJ
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: As the sun rises over California's Coast Highway in Mendocino County, the buzz of drones fades into the wind as waves roll in and crash on the rocks below.
The drones are soaring high - up to 400 feet above - but close to shore, flying while documenting one of the Golden State's most precious coastal habitats, the kelp forest.
Back on the shore, scientist and drone pilot Vienna Saccomanno's hands grip the controls while her eyes focus on the horizon over the Saunders Reef.
For the third year in a row, Saccomanno and her team are using drones to survey sites along the coast of Mendocino and Sonoma counties, collecting data and mapping the carbon-absorbing brown seaweed so that the habitat can be protected, be defended, and continue its role as a climate change mitigator.
So far, results are promising.
"2019 was our first year of these surveys and we were basically surveying open water. There was just no kelp, literally, little to no kelp. And to be out here in 2021 and see this strong uptick in kelp is just so exciting as a scientist," said Saccomanno, who leads the Nature Conservancy's kelp monitoring and mapping program.
Since 2019, the Nature Conservancy has surveyed 36 sites each year for its program. Saccomanno said the drones found an average kelp canopy size of less than 1 acre per survey site in 2019. That number increased to 5.5 acres in 2020. Both are still well below the historic average of 18 acres, Saccomanno said, citing data from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The numbers are not yet in for this year.
Concern for the kelp skyrocketed following a collapse of the seaweed in 2013. That's when water temperatures increased dramatically along the U.S. West Coast in a phenomenon that scientists dubbed "the blob" and when an outbreak of the mysterious sea star wasting syndrome caused a die-off of sea stars. The die-off of sea stars allowed sea urchins to flourish and consume as much of the remaining kelp as they could. Amid more warming in the water, ocean acidification poses another threat to the kelp.
When healthy, the kelp forests provide a buffer against climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via photosynthesis.
The perfect storm of factors left the kelp ecosystem in desperate need of help, Saccomanno said. The kelp levels have risen since then, which she attributes to a recent upwelling of cool nutrient-rich waters that help the seaweed thrive, but the canopies are still below the historic average.
"We know that this ecosystem is still not fully in balance and there's still restoration work to be done," she said.
For that mapping, researchers turned toward technology called DroneDeploy. With a programmed path, the drones fly in what researchers call a lawnmower pattern. They fly a straight line often parallel to the coast, turn and then fly another line while capturing high-resolution images that overlap with the previous line.
Saccomanno compares the process to using the panorama function on a smartphone's camera.
They then use an algorithm to run a classification and determine which pixel is kelp and which pixel is not.
An example from 2020's flight over Saunders Reef showed the drone's raw image stitched together and the image after running the classification, which features the kelp highlighted in red.
Kirk Klausmeyer, director of data science of Nature Conservancy's California chapter, said the drones help provide the data for them and other stakeholders to make informed decisions.
"When dealing with problems like this, we really have to get as much data as possible. And drones allow us to get really high-resolution imagery of individual kelp plants and have high-resolution imagery. But you need it across a large area and that's where drones come in. We're able to use tools like DroneDeploy to stitch together multiple images into one mosaic, and then we have high-resolution data for a large area," Klausmeyer said.
The team drives along the coast, stops, and flies its drones. There are 36 sites, averaging about 250 acres each. The location at Saunders is on the bigger end at 715 acres. Within these sites, the drones capture images of the kelp canopies and the data helps determine the size.
"Those are what we call kelp strongholds or those areas that are resilient to change and environmental stressors. Those are the areas that are important to protect and defend. And these maps show where those strongholds are," Saccomanno said.
Once the flights are completed, the team processes the data to create maps to share with partner organizations who can take action to help restore the kelp forests.
Some of those actions could be removing sea urchins from the kelp forests either by divers or by traps. Others include boosting or reintroducing populations of sea otters, a predator of sea urchins.
(Production: Nathan Frandino)
- Copyright Holder: REUTERS
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