Giant kelp forests are a wonder of the underwater world. They share many similarities with terrestrial forests: lush understories, diverse fauna, and verdant canopies that stretch skyward toward the sunlight. However, they also have features completely foreign to any woodland.

Giant kelp is among the fastest growing organisms on Earth—able to grow up to two feet per day under ideal conditions—with a lifecycle much shorter than that of any tree. Also, unlike trees, the presence of the giant algae can change rapidly: Storms can uproot entire kelp forests in February that grow back by September.

These factors make for a forest that is always in flux. A new study led by Raine Detmer explores the effects of severe storms on kelp forest ecosystems, particularly the seafloor, or benthic, communities.

Detmer, who conducted the research her senior year at UC Santa Barbara, worked with her coauthors to develop a mathematical model of the ecosystem’s intricate relationships. It accounts for factors like the growth rate and mortality of algae and invertebrates, the life stages of giant kelp, and the amount of light reaching the seafloor.

Simulating the effects of storms on the ecosystem revealed that, by removing the giant kelp, a storm can provide a competitive advantage to the algae over the invertebrates. What’s more, if the storm also scours the sea bottom, it exposes more surface for the two factions. And with the seafloor now bathed in sunlight, the algae can take advantage of the real estate more quickly than their competition.

What’s fascinating is that the ecosystem doesn’t simply remain a meadow, as the algae’s time in the sun is only temporary. The model showed that as the vigorous giant kelp again begins to reach for the surface, it shifts the competitive advantage back toward the invertebrates.

In this way, competing groups of organisms with different resource requirements can coexist in these systems, with each faction dominating at a different time.

Read the full article about giant kelp forests by Harrison Tasoff at Futurity.