The increased likelihood and severity of storm events has brought into focus the role of coastal ecosystems in provision of shoreline protection by attenuating wave energy. Canopy-forming kelps, including giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera), are thought to provide this ecosystem service, but supporting data are extremely limited. Previous in situ examinations relied mostly on comparisons between nominally similar sites with and without kelp. Given that other factors (especially seafloor bathymetry and topographic features) often differ across sites, efforts to isolate the effects of kelp on wave energy propagation confront challenges. In particular, it can be difficult to distinguish wave energy dissipation attributable to kelp from frictional processes at the seabed that often covary with the presence of kelp. Here, we use an ecological transition from no kelp to a full forest, at a single site with static bathymetry, to resolve unambiguously the capacity of giant kelp to damp waves.
We measured waves within and outside rocky reef habitat, in both the absence and the presence of giant kelp, at Marguerite Reef, Palos Verdes, CA, USA. Nested within a broader kelp restoration project, this site transitioned from a bare state to one supporting a fully formed forest (density of 8 stipes m−2). We quantified, as a function of incident wave conditions, the decline in wave energy flux attributable to the presence of kelp, as waves propagated from outside and into reef habitat.
The kelp forest damped wave energy detectably, but to a modest extent. Interactions with the seabed alone reduced wave energy flux, on average, by 12 ± 1.4 % over 180 m of travel. The kelp forest induced an additional 7 ± 1.2 % decrease. Kelp-associated declines in wave energy flux were slightly greater for waves of longer periods and smaller wave heights.
Macrocystis pyrifera forests have a limited, albeit measurable, capacity to enhance shoreline protection from nearshore waves. Expectations that giant kelp forests, whether extant or enhanced through restoration, have substantial impacts on wave-induced coastal erosion might require re-evaluation.