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Kelp forests give hope to climate refugees
An underwater paradise in a world of dust
This is the longline for my short story ‘Human Island’.
‘Human Island’ is the story of a grieving mother who documents a human sacrifice and finally finds peace in the most unlikely of places.
To avoid spoiler alerts 🤭, I will not go into plot related story details (such as the human sacrifice) in this newsletter.
The short story ‘Human Island’ takes place in Southern Europe around 2550. Due to climate change and the increased occurrence of unpredictable heatwaves, most of Southern Europe lost its population as the locals found refuge north where the temperature was cooler, and there was the hope of finding jobs.
Climate change and temperature and sea level rises renderred parts of the world uninhabitable. As a result, more and more climate refugees arrived in Europe. With the cooler north already overpopulated and short on resources, the climate refugees took shelter in the abandoned areas of Southern Europe.
One such example were Japanese climate refugees who sailed to Europe after large parts of Japan were submerged underwater. Those who survived the long and perilous trip established colonies on the Atlantic Coast in northern Portugal and Spain.
At first, the lack of jobs and natural resources made the perspective of living in that area quite daunting, and many Europeans thought that the Japanese communities would soon perish. But the Japanese refugees started recycling materials they found in the abandoned cities and building their signature self-sufficient capsule homes.
Most importantly, they quietly started a long-term project to revive the marine ecosystem by salvaging the algae that had survived the frequent marine heatwaves. With much work and dedication, they managed to regrow the kelp forests and create a thriving business out of harvesting and processing seaweed.
Soon, the thriving Japanese seaweed industry attracted people from over-populated Northern European cities who relocated to the south and turned to seaweed farming. The heat and farming work made for a hard life, but there was food and jobs and a thriving marine ecosystem that gave everyone hope for a better future.
Socio-politically the Japanese colonies are self-sufficient communities that collaborate as equals. A Colonies Council presided by a Counsellor makes all the decisions for the towns.
The Counsellor is elected every ten years and can hold office five times. The current Counsellor is Aia Santos, and she was recently re-elected for her fifth and last 10-year office.
Aia Santos was born in Japan around the year 2490. When she was ten, she migrated to Europe on a boat with her parents, who perished during the journey. Both her parents were marine biologists, and Aia followed in their footsteps.
Through a lot of self-learning using the materials that her parents had embarked on the boats, Aia gained knowledge vital to reviving the kelp forests and thus contributing to the efforts of marine reforestation.
Aia married a Portuguese man and had a daughter and a granddaughter. When her husband and daughter lost their lives, Aia took in her granddaughter Shia and raised her.
Although the Japanese population mixed with the local Europeans, many of their traditions were still alive due to the conservation efforts of the colonies. For example, when they embarked on their ships to sail to Europe, the Japanese climate refugees took along traditional kimonos, musical instruments and even an ancient Shinto Shrine made from wood.
Wood was the rarest and most precious material in those times, and the wooden shrine became famous all over Europe and attracted hundreds of pilgrims every year who came to pray for the revival of the forests now long gone.
When I started to read about seaweed and climate change, I wasn’t aware of the existence of kelp forests. But these underwater ecosystems with a dense growth of several species of algae that can reach up to 45 meters and resemble terrestrial forests, and their eco-diversity became a point of fascination.
The more I read about kelp forests, the more I understood how essential kelp forests would be for restoring the marine ecosystem in my dystopian world. And also as a source of raw materials for food or textiles production in a world starved of natural resources. Kelp can grow up to 45 cm per day, meaning that kelp forests can form very fast in areas where they were previously extinct.
Since there are no terrestrial forests in my dystopian world, the fact that kelp forests can be restored gives hope to humans.
Kelp forests are some of the world’s most diverse and productive ecosystems. They are not only a food source for many sea creatures but are also used as nurseries by marine animals who seek to raise their offspring in relative safety. So naturally, kelp forests are also hunting grounds, and sharks and other mammals roam the long corridors between the algae in search of prey.
Of course, much of this marine biodiversity does not exist in my world, but I can imagine that with the expansion of kelp forests, marine life could slowly revive.
Just like regular forests, kelp forests play a huge role in absorbing CO2, and it is estimated that kelp forests have the potential to sequester between 1 and 10 billion tons of CO2 annually. As a result, some organizations started to cultivate kelp for carbon capture.
On the one hand, climate change negatively affects kelp forests, which are predicted to decline massively due to an increase in marine heatwaves and coastal storms. On the other hand, climate change and rising sea temperatures prevent sea urchins from overgrazing the kelp forests, thus allowing them to recover in some regions. Kelp forests are essential for the functioning of coastal ecosystems.
According to a study, there is no consolidated data about the current state of kelp forests in Europe. Consequently, local decision-makers don’t have the necessary scientific support for conserving kelp forests despite their stark decline.
I am not sure whether the ocean temperatures in the areas where the Japanese climate refugees reside in my fiction world will be cool enough in 2150 for kelp forests to grow. But for the sake of my fictitious seaweed farming communities, I hope they will.
If you are interested in reading more about kelp forests, here’s a list of studies and articles that I found very interesting.
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