Why Seaweed Might Be Key in the Fight Against Climate Change

The head of the Bay Foundation discusses the future of L.A.’s watershed

With raw sewage no longer pouring into our coastal waters, the executive director of the Bay Foundation, Tom Ford, has been able to focus on a few other priorities. For one, we need to reduce the amount of nutrients flowing into Santa Monica Bay, he says. Too much nitrogen, iron, and phosphate from treated waste increases ocean acidification, forming oxygen-poor “dead zones” and hurting wildlife. Citythinker

But Ford, who fell in love with the sea as a child watching Jacques Cousteau on TV, believes that effective conservation must go beyond a baycentric approach; he’s thinking about the entire watershed, since wetlands, rivers, and streams all affect the health of the ocean. And he’s optimistic that making investments now—such as restoring nearby wetlands, which act as filters, and revegetating beaches to keep sand from washing away—will help environmental sustainability, especially as the climate changes.

For Ford, losing a few volleyball courts is better than losing the entire beach to erosion.
“Our beaches are going to be our first line of defense against a rising and stormier sea. We need to take this landscape we have manicured and bring it back to life. If we get the plants reestablished on the beach, they will hang onto sediment and naturally recover from wave events and flooding. In some ways, it’ll be much better because there will be wildlife as part of your experience. Otherwise we’re going to be forced to build a giant wall and lose our beach altogether.”

Seaweed is key. Kelp forests can reduce greenhouse gases as they reduce acid-building nutrients in the water and help prevent beach erosion.
“The kelp improves water quality by drawing on nutrient loads in the water. It makes those nutrients—via energy from the sun through photosynthesis—available to fishes and invertebrates. When it washes up on the beach, it becomes a home for flies, which birds need to complete their migration up the Pacific Flyway. We’re doing research to look at how well kelp can contain carbon. If we’ve got too much CO2 in the atmosphere, how do we get it into the ocean faster? By growing things in the ocean—and nothing really grows faster than kelp. Also, it can offset some of the coastal erosion that we expect.”

When it comes to re-envisioning the city, now is the time to think big.
“L.A. jumped up so fast in the post-World War II boom that our infrastructure is all the same age. So we’re faced with one of the world’s greatest renovation opportunities on a civic scale, and that’s very exciting. How we use and move water, how we transport ourselves, and how we revegetate—if done smartly, these key processes can aid the sustainability of our community.”

Illustration by Nigel Buchanan