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Santa Barbara Coastal Long Term Ecological Research Site

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LTER: Land/Ocean Interactions and the Dynamics of Kelp Forest Communities  (University of California-Santa Barbara)

Research Focus

The Santa Barbara Coastal (SBC) Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Project, located in the Santa Barbara Channel region of the Southern California Bight, investigates the importance of land and ocean processes in structuring giant kelp forest ecosystems.

Although there is increasing concern about the impacts of human activities on coastal watersheds and nearshore marine environments, there have been few long-term studies of linkages among terrestrial, estuarine, nearshore and oceanic habitats. The SBC LTER is filling this gap.

Research Outcomes

Key findings from SBC LTER research are contributing to significant advances in understanding of the environmental and ecological processes as well as the human factors that shape kelp forest ecosystems. 

Wave Impact: For years, scientists debated whether nutrient inputs or herbivore grazing exert greater influence on the growth of giant kelp forests. SBC scientists discovered that wave disturbance has a surprising and overwhelming influence on kelp forest growth. This has important implications for how climate change may impact these sensitive and crucial coastal ecosystems.

Watching from Space: SBC scientists have taken advantage of new remote sensing technology to study giant kelp forests over time scales ranging from weeks to decades. The results demonstrate the value of high-resolution satellite imagery for observing long-term effects of climate change and human activities on sensitive marine ecosystems.

Working Together: SBC scientists have cultivated new working relationships with the fishing industry to establish mutual learning for improved fisheries management. They incorporated local ecological knowledge shared by commercial fishing participants into assessments of marine reserves and fish populations, and fishers adopted a community-based approach for monitoring the condition of their fisheries.

Education & Outreach

The SBC LTER Schoolyard focuses on two major program elements:

  • an environmental education program for underserved youth

  • improving ocean science literacy by supporting teachers and students in hands-on educational activities at our UCSB educational aquarium and through our partnership with the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary’s intertidal monitoring program, LiMPETS.

  • Public outreach activities include public presentations on LTER-related research to non-scientist groups, education and training of public stakeholder groups, natural history tours, and media outreach.

In addition, SBC investigators participate in several public working groups to provide education and scientific advice and perspectives to decision makers and stakeholders addressing policies for coastal management, land use, natural resources and marine reserves.

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Images (1 of )

  • photo, coastline, sediment plume visible
  • hoisted boat
  • students looking over bridge rail at river
  • colorful star barren
  • underwater research
  • aerial view of coastline
Sediment plume in the nearshore zone near San Onofre Creek after heavy winter rains.
Much of the SBC LTER research on kelp forests and near shore oceanography is conducted from small boats. These boats are trailered to access points with boat ramps or hoists. Here you see a small boat launch operation using a hoist at Goleta Pier, the closest access point to the University of California at Santa Barbara. (
Students of the ESA SEEDS program learn about the dynamics of a small coastal estuary during their 2007 field trip to the SBC LTER.
Brittle stars cover the bottom on some rocky reefs in the SBC LTER.
Changes in dissolved oxygen is measured in enclosed chambers such as this and used to estimate primary production of understory algae on reefs.
The domain of the Santa Barbara Coastal LTER as seen from 438 miles in space.
Landsat 5 Thematic Mapper satellite.