Hidden Deserts: Discovering Barrens Worldwide

Latest update June 14, 2019 Started on April 16, 2018
sea

Underwater macroalgal forests are among the most important ecosystems in our oceans. Their fronds and branches create a rich canopy, which harbors a diversity of species that are critical to nearshore trophic networks. Additionally, macroalgal forests offer a wide range of goods and services to populations living on the coast. They help ensure high water quality, provide refuge to species of commercial interest and are an important tourist attraction for divers, to list just a few of their critical functions. Macroalgal forests face a growing threat and we may be losing them at a rapid rate. One of the reasons for this loss is overgrazing effect by sea urchin herbivores. Normally, sea urchins would be naturally controlled by predatory fish, but with rampant overfishing, populations of sea urchins can grow to outbreak proportions allowing them to completely overgraze underwater forests. In addition, some areas (such as the Eastern Mediterranean) have suffered major losses of macroalgal forests because of herbivorous fish that enter through the Suez Canal. To add to these threats, other factors, like heat waves (that are increasing with climate change) can also cause dramatic collapses of these precious underwater forests. As a result, areas that were once abundant macroalgal forests are being rapidly replaced by underwater deserts – barrens – dominated by overgrazed rocks rather than macroalgae. These alternate habitats are very poor, low productive ecosystems with very little biodiversity. A group of researchers from different institutions have joint efforts to study the collapse of the underwater macroalgal forests and the expansion of barrens. In particular, we are interested in understanding what characterises these new barrens in order to isolate the factors that determine their creation. We also believe that monitoring already existing deserts is essential to prevent and predict the creation of new barrens along the coastline and will help us evaluate the possibilities of recovering lost underwater forests. For this reason, we launched this expedition to discover the barrens worldwide. Barrens are areas where the bare rock is completely clean of all erect algal cover and is typically covered over with encrusting algae. How big these bare areas are, depends on the pressure the ecosystem receives but it normally ranges in sizes from several square meters to large expansions of hundreds of square meters.

April 16, 2018
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In The Field

GRITA


After several months working on the Hidden deserts project, we have received around 100 observations of underwater deserts that have now a spot in the map.

The few citizens that are aware of the project are identifying new deserts in the oceans every day.

So it is the moment to SHOUT!

We need more people and organisations to get involved with the project. Hidden deserts is open to everyone, so if you are willing to participate don't be shy and contact us.

Visit www.hiddendeserts.com We are currently getting funds to provide with the appropriate gear to all those institutions, researchers and volunteers that collaborate with the project.

We need more eyes out there in our oceans to save the reefs from the collapse!

GET INVOLVED

Silence


It has been a while now since our last post. During this period, we have been testing the TRIDENT OpenROV while exploring the submerged deserts of the Western Mediterranean.

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Divers will know that quietness is generally referred to as the most amazing feeling of being underwater. When I first saw the video records of the TRIDENT on my computer, I could instantly feel that silence (video below).

The silence of these images triggered a great discussion on twitter, https://twitter.com/HiddenDeserts/status/1093915402244186113.

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Hopefully, uncovering new barrens will increase our knowledge of these systems and bring clues on how to recover the lost macroalgal forests.

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Deeply grateful


In our latest post, we explained how we use drones to reach places with difficult access and to study the extension of underwater deserts. Since very recently our fleet was based on aerial drones only, but thanks to the SEE initiative (Open Explorer) we have now recruited an OpenROV!

The hidden deserts team is passionate about using technology to help science advances so we are deeply grateful. The new OpenROV will be very useful in discovering and monitoring barrens worldwide!

Join us on our journey!

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Like an Eagle


One of the traditional challenges that marine literacy and conservation have faced is related to the inherent beauty of the oceans.

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The shiny bright blue mirror-like surface of the sea is one of its biggest threats.

It was not that long ago that marine researchers broke this powerful barrier, diving in a new and fascinating world to be discovered.

Diving the vast oceans is a wonderful commitment, however, its natural wilderness makes this task very difficult sometimes.

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But new technologies are out to help. And despite we all love being wet in the sea, we decided to also…

…FLY!

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From meters above the surface, the shallow bottoms emerge. From those altitudes and with a bit of training, we managed to identify underwater deserts while flying. That helps us to reach remote places that are naturally very difficult to explore.

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Beautiful shots, Jordi!

Thanks David! It is easy when you have such a wonderful landscape.

Australia
Bondi, perhaps one of the most famous corners of Australia. Crowds of visitors from all over the world converge in the legendary beach of the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. Its iconic pool in the coastal walk attracts hundreds of tourists every day becoming the perfect spot to rest and watch how local surfers share the waves with internationals.


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What not many people know is that beneath the surface there’s a huge desert. A hidden desert. Crayweed (Phyllospora comosa) and kelp (Ecklonia radiata) used to dominate the bottoms. But a combination of stressors resulted in the bare rock area that extends today along most of the Northern shore of Bondi.

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Barrens are present all along the coast of New South Wales (NSW) in Australia. Not even the boundaries of National Parks can completely prevent their appearance. The increase of seawater temperature has facilitated the expansion of a voracious herbivore, the sea urchin Centrostephanus rodgersii. At the same time, fishing has depleted the number of crayfish, which are one of the main predators of this species. As a result, massive aggregations of sea urchins are pushing underwater forest to collapse.

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In some regions of Australia, underwater deserts are very large having strong implications for the society. Local fishers are aware of the effects of the expansion of barrens to their activity and economy.

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Researchers at the University of New South Wales run restoration programs engaging the community to recover the lost macroalgal forest. The ‘Operation Crayweed’ recently replenished part of the barrens in Bondi with translocated seaweed that have already had offspring.

Uncovering existing barrens is the first step to increase our understanding of their dynamics. Luckily, some of the deserts of Australia are not hidden anymore.

J.

PS: Terrestrial systems can collapse as well. In the Otway National Park, aggregations of koalas cause massive die offs of gum trees on which they graze.

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Great job Jordi Boada! 🙌

Expedition Background

A group of researchers from different institutions have joint efforts to study the collapse of the underwater macroalgal forests and the expansion of barrens. In particular, we are interested in understanding what characterises these new barrens in order to isolate the factors that determine their creation. We also believe that monitoring already existing deserts is essential to prevent and predict the creation of new barrens along the coastline and will help us evaluate the possibilities of recovering lost underwater forests.


We have launched a citizen science project to spot barrens worldwide. We combine different technologies to detect, measure and monitor the hidden deserts from flying and underwater drones to snorkel and SCUBA diving.

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This is really interesting. Can’t wait to hear more about the citizen science project and how the monitoring is going so far. Where are the current monitoring sites?

This sounds like a fascinating project, Jordi! Can't wait to hear more :)

Hi David and Madeleine! You can follow the already spotted barrens in http://www.seawatchers.org/projecte-15.php. Our last expedition has been in Australia and hopefully I would be able to show you some of the barrens we've uncovered here soon. Thanks for your interest and support!

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