How the ocean and forests connect

In every wave rolling up on shore, the ocean pours into the land. In every river trickling or roaring into the salty sea, the trees, soil, water and wildlife connect. In every breath we take, we owe gratitude towards the two greatest oxygen providers on the planet. 

The link between ocean and forest, an example of how our biome life sometimes overshadows our ecosystem life, will be honored in the first-ever Trees and Seas event this week, starting Aug. 2. The festival invites people to join through beach cleanups, free virtual discussions, and an in-person event in the Patagonia region on Chiloé Island, Chile. 

“Through this annual event, our goal is to build a bridge between ocean and forest conservation, emphasizing how we are all one planet … one environment … and in the end, one global community united in our effort to foster a healthier and more just planet for all,” the event’s mission states, organized by Plastic Oceans and ÜÑÜ

Trees bond to seas in unexpected ways. And science is just scratching the surface on the nuances of these inseparable ecosystems. Wildlife and nutrient exchanges have been the primary source of clues into the mysteries surrounding how deep this link goes. 

“The knitting together of sea and land by rivers, logs, fish, soil and tides is basic to the ecology of all coastal margins where forests occur. Because most great rivers rise in forested places and run to the sea, the connection is fundamental and well-nigh universal and extends far inland and upland from the coast,” wrote John C. Gordon, Pinchot Professor of Forestry at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. 

Marine and terrestrial romance stories 

On an island chain halfway between Hawaii and American Samoa, wildlife connections have exhibited (what David Attenborough would call) an extraordinary symbiosis of nature through native trees, bird poop and manta rays. In 2012, scientists studying in Palmyra Atoll discovered how natural forests contained more nitrogen and biodiversity than their neighboring coconut palm farms. It turns out, birds living between marine and terrestrial habitats provide high rates of nitrogen when their guano drops to the ground. Trees soak up nitrogen through their roots, which travels to their leaves, then falls to the floor to fertilize the soil. Eventually, the nutrient-rich freshwater flows into the ocean.

This mini circle of life helps diverse marine species through nutrient delivery. Perhaps most notably, the process enriches phytoplankton — an essential regulator of life. Since manta rays feast on plankton, their populations are denser off the coasts of native forests. This Palmyra Atoll study has implications for coastal forests worldwide and their relationship with plankton and marine biodiversity. 

The link between ocean and ancient forests has become a staple story for conservation across boundaries in the Pacific Northwest. Temperate rainforests have long been the primary birthplace for salmon. A centuries-long friendship, salmon are born under the old-growth branches of Douglas fir, western red cedar and hemlock. They swim to sea as youth, return to lay eggs as adults, and then pass. (Maybe unpleasant to visualize, but) their decomposing bodies provide critical nutrients to the soil, continue this cycle and maintain a general healthy ecosystem.

Salmon also feed dozens of species, besides humans. According to Reference, “small fish, raccoons and ducks often forage for and eat salmon eggs. Minks, otters, herons and bass consume salmon during the early stages of their life cycle. Eagles, hawks, orcas, seals, sharks and sea lions often eat adult salmon.”

Estuaries, marshes and mangroves have traditionally staged the most popular love stories between forest and ocean life. In estuaries, where salt-tolerant trees hug the last flow of fresh water into the ocean, ecosystems blend together. These intertwining environments often house biodiversity hotspots with thousands of species and provide a buffer for storms and rising sea levels.

The National Environmental Education Foundation explains, “thanks to their dense tangle of roots and leaves, mangrove trees help filter out salt, replace lost sediment, and lessen the impact of waves, thus protecting shorelines from erosion and storm damage. This mass of roots (visible above water) enables mangroves to manage high and low tides every day.”

The blue and green planet 

Forests are nature’s filter. When water runs through the dirt and rocks, it purifies as pollutants get trapped along the stream. For better or worse, beach sand and other soils are also a checkpoint to grab trash before it heads off to sea to decompose and turn into tiny plastic particles.

Trees are essential in keeping the ground in place. Clearcuts are famous for their ability to destroy rivers and cause an increase of sediment to run to the sea and over-supply nutrients. In areas where algal blooms are a concern, tree planting has prevented extreme erosion. Scientists have also discovered leaves can play an essential role in controlling hazardous blooms

In a most intriguing blend of love (okay, maybe it’s just the non-emotional exchange of gases but), trees help reduce ocean acidification — the soaking up of CO2 by the ocean, which is relatively recently decreasing the overall saltwater pH and bleaching (aka sucking the life out of) coral. At this point, researchers estimate 90 percent of coral reefs around the world will disappear in the coming decades if nothing changes.

The more forests that stay standing, especially the old giants in the Pacific Northwest and what’s left of the virgins around the world, the better chance coral reefs have to stay around. The trees take up carbon dioxide that would otherwise intensify coral bleaching.  

Oceans and terrestrial vegetation also have much in common: each representing the dual lungs of the planet — with their critical photosynthesis role in providing the air we breathe — and the only habitat for distinct marine-forest-dependent wildlife.

And perhaps their relationship is much more abstract through the same sense of peace we get when walking through old-growth forests or swim through coral reefs. 

Trees and Seas: The event bringing us together 

Trees and Seas will highlight filmmakers, environmental leaders and nonprofit executives for free panel discussions throughout this week. (Talks will be recorded and available on You Tube and Facebook the next day). Individuals can also take part by signing up for a cleanup or organizing one

Panels we’ll be listening to include:

By participating in the event, we can all do our part to educate ourselves and others and even take action. 

Trees and Seas honors and puts meaning behind what the Palmyra Atoll manta ray researchers stated as the “striking illustration of a pattern that scientists are finding around the world. Life on land and life in the ocean are bonded in unexpectedly powerful ways.” 

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