Floating Forests brings Plant Science to YOU this summer

Do you fancy doing plant science off the shores of Tasmania, around the Antarctic, or even Hawaii? Then the Zooniverse has the project for you. Floating Forests is a website to study the growth or decline of giant kelp, Macrocystis around the world.

Floating Forests

Giant kelp is pretty well named. It can grow to sixty metres in length and it is found around the world. The undersea forests they make are vital habitat for many other species. So tracking growth or decline would be a good thing. The difficulty is that you simply cannot dive everywhere to examine the forests up close – and this is where the Zooniverse comes in.

The Zooniverse site was set up to have the public classify galaxies at a site called GalaxyZoo. Astronomers knew humans were much better at recognising what sort of galaxies they were looking at than computers. The average member of the public wouldn’t be as good as a professional astronomer, but ask enough and you can average out all the errors and get a result better than one professional classifying galaxies. They also found you got results faster, because there’s plenty of people willing to help with primary science.

Floating Forests works in a similar way, but instead of looking out from Earth to space, the Floating Forests images are taken from orbit looking at Earth.

To take part you first sign up. Then you can see a tutorial on how to mark up images, but it’s basically drawing loops around what you think is kelp.

Your eyes might be better than mine, and you might see more kelp in the images. Or maybe I was trigger happy and marked too much. Averaging will help factor out mistakes similar to the concept of The Wisdom of Crowds.

The images are from Landsat. It means the any individual image could be lousy. There are corrupted images, some which are just land or sea and plenty that are clouded out. They have tools for working round this. The upside of using Landsat data is that there’s an archive going back thirty years, so while a place might be clouded out one month, it’s not likely to be covered all the time. It opens the potential for detailed analysis by season and over time.

The project is a collaboration between the Zooniverse and the Kelp Ecosystem Ecology Network, and they’re running a blog to keep people up to date with what they’re finding. The Zooniverse has been terrific in getting people engaged with astronomy. With luck, KEEN can do the same for marine ecology.