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  • Kelp forests are one of the most biodiverse habitats on Earth. Every nook and cranny is jam-packed with life! This citizen science project wants to understand more about how kelp forests grow and change over time. Floating Forests needs your help to trace patches of kelp from pictures taken from space. Computers are not up to the task – humans can do a far more accurate job helping to process the mountain of data they have.


    Rights: Floating Forests/Zooniverse

    Floating Forests

    This citizen science project is funded by NASA and uses photographs taken from the Landsat series of satellites to find kelp forests.

    Reach: Worldwide

    Nature of science focus: Online citizen science (OCS) projects can be used to develop any of the Nature of Science (NoS) substrands. Identify aspects of NoS that your students need to get better at or understand more fully and then frame your unit to be very clear about these things when you do them.

    Science capability focus: Gather and interpret data, Engage with science

    Science focus: Environmental science, ecology – ocean species, coastal ecosystems

    Some suggested science concepts:

    • Seaweed diversity.
    • Seaweed as primary produce.
    • The role of seaweed in ocean food webs.
    • The impacts of climate change on kelp.
    • Living things depend on other living and non-living things for survival.
    • Importance of foundation species in ecosystems.

    Many concepts could be learned – focusing on a few can often be more powerful. Develop your learning outcomes and success criteria from these concepts as well as the Nature of Science strand and the science capabilities.

    Rights: Fastily, licenced under GNU Free Documentation License and Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0


    A kelp forest on a reef. Kelp extends beyond the barren zone, down to depths as far as light can travel.

    Some examples of learning outcomes:

    Students can:

    • understand the importance of satellite observations and the limitations of this technology
    • understand the importance of kelp as a critical organism in marine ecosystems
    • interpret images through careful observation
    • understand the value of taking action via a citizen science project.

    About Floating Forests

    This project is funded by NASA and uses photographs taken from the Landsat series of satellites.

    Rights: Public domain

    Landsat 9 Earth observation satellite

    The Landsat program began in 1972 and is the longest-running operation of its kind. This satellite is the ninth in the program and uses optical and thermal sensors to capture images of the Earth.

    Image courtesy of NASA.

    The need for citizen scientist help came when scientists discovered that Landsat was not designed to see kelp and that no image classification software was able to identify kelp within the thousands of images that Floating Forests had. Kelp’s reflectance signature (the colour of light that it reflects) is just at the edge of the camera’s detection abilities. Because of this, kelp and something as simple as the glint of sun off a wave look the same to a computer, but to a person, the shapes and patterns of kelp forests are clearly different. In this instance humans can do a far more accurate job than a computer of tracing patches of kelp.

    Rights: Floating Forests/Zooniverse

    Identifying kelp forests

    Citizen scientists are asked to view images and select the kelp patches that they can see in the Floating Forests project.

    As with other Zooniverse projects, this project offers students a unique opportunity to explore real scientific data while making a contribution to cutting-edge research. It is also possible to connect to the scientists through the blog and the forum (under the ‘talk’ tab). Accessibility to experts has been shown to be a powerful connection and motivator with students.


    Giant kelp forests are one of the most exciting ecosystems on Earth! Kelp is called a foundation species. In ecosystems where kelp is present (roughly 25% of the world’s coastlines), it forms the foundation for the entire ecosystem. Kelp provides food for all manner of herbivores such as tiny shrimp, sea urchins and a wide variety of fish.

    Activities using Floating Forests

    Zooniverse offers some free lab activities, including GEO/BIO/EVS 101 with Floating Forests that supports this project. The activity has three sections: climate change background, an introduction to Floating Forests and case studies that present data generated by citizen scientists on Floating Forests in the context of climate change.

    Although the activity encourages learning about climate change and kelp, the main goal is to foster scientific self-efficacy, data literacy and self-confidence that will allow participants to be more self-sufficient with regard to scientific topics in our modern lives. Information is presented in several ways including text, graphs, maps and hypothetical debates.

    This activity was initially developed for undergraduates in general education science courses, but it could be easily adapted for secondary school students.

    Related content

    Love Rimurimu – an ocean of potential for seaweed is a year-long inquiry with exploration in the classroom and in the field. There are resources covering biodiversity, human impacts and restoration for short-term studies. Several resources are in te reo Māori, courtesy of Te Aho Tū Roa.

    Discover the mātauranga that underpins pōhā – bags made from rimurapa, a species of bull kelp, that preserve tītī (muttonbirds) for up to 2 years.

    Read about Dr Leigh Tait’s work on mapping the recovery of kelp forests using drone footage following the uplift of the South Island’s coastline during the 2016 Kaikōura earthquake.

    This article explains some of the issues related to satellites and remote sensing, such as the reflection of light.

    See our Seaweed and algae Pinterest board for more resource ideas.

    Find out more about using satellites to observe Earth.

    In this video ākonga who’ve participated in this project provide a brief explanation about citizen science projects, how they benefit the science community and why they like being involved.

    Here are some planning tips for when you intend to use a citizen science project with your students. See these helpful webinars: Getting started with citizen science and Online citizen science.

    Useful links

    Follow Floating Forests on Twitter here.

    Te Ara has a useful summary of different kelps and seaweeds here.

    New Zealand Seaweeds: An Illustrated Guide by Dr Wendy Nelson is a photographic identification guide to New Zealand’s unique marine algae.

    Explore more NASA citizen science projects.

    Discover more about foundation species in these science papers Foundation Species, Non-trophic Interactions, and the Value of Being Common and Interactions among Foundation Species and Their Consequences for Community Organization, Biodiversity, and Conservation.

    This article from 2023 in The Conversation covers how new research is demonstrating that New Zealand’s vital kelp forests are in peril from ocean warming – threatening the important species that rely on them.


    Floating Forest is a project within the Zooniverse platform. Zooniverse, the world’s largest platform for people-powered research, is a collaboration between Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, the University of Oxford, the University of Minnesota, 2.5 million participants and hundreds of researchers around the world. For the full list of 80+ active Zooniverse projects, check out

      Published 13 September 2022 Referencing Hub articles
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