Harnessing technology to preserve the world’s coral reefs

The plight of the planet’s coral reefs have been thrust once again into the spotlight in recent days. The most eye-catching headlines were also, sadly, the grimmest. A new report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) stated that nature is declining at rates not previously witnessed in human history, with plenty of concerning emphasis on the world’s seas and oceans. Launched in Paris, the report was compiled over three years by 450 experts, and draws from over 15,000 scientific and government sources. The authors pulled no punches in asserting that ‘transformative changes’ are required in order to protect and preserve various parts of the natural world.

The statistics for sustainable fisheries do not make easy reading (even if many of them were already known). Over 55% of the available ocean area is covered by industrial fishing. Roughly a third of the world’s reported fish catch is illegal, unreported or unregulated. A third of marine fish stocks are being harvested at unsustainable levels; 60% are maximally sustainably fished; a mere 7% are underfished. Additionally, more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened, and the spectre of climate change on the safety and security of coastal communities also looms large.

The warnings related to coral reefs particularly stood out. It is estimated that almost one third of reef-forming corals are at risk. This comes hard on the heels of approximately 50% of live coral reef cover already being lost since the 1970s, and recent scientific predictions that unless urgent action is taken in this area, there may be no coral reefs left at all in a few decades’ time.

Defining the problem

So how is science and technology being harnessed to help protect coral reefs? First of all, by continuing to define and highlight their importance and the threats they face. A new reportby the U.S. Geological Survey, The Nature Conservancy and the University of California-Santa Cruz, for example, calculated that Hawaii’s coral reefs provide more than $835 million in flood protection for the state annually. Reefs are rightly feted as an essential element of marine ecosystems, but their role in protecting human life on land is perhaps less well understood. This is incredibly important as the UN / IPBES report highlighted that between 100 and 300 million people in coastal areas are estimated to be at increased risk due to loss of coastal habitat protection. Healthy reefs essentially act as submerged breakwaters, thus dissipating up to 97% of wave energy offshore – energy that could wreak havoc if it were left to reach land unchallenged during a severe weather event.

EOMAP’s 3D model of Wreck Island Reef, Australia. Source: EOMAP.

Satellite-derived earth observation imagery is being put to good use in several ways. Remote sensing company EOMAP has just announced that it will be showcasing the world’s first 3D habitat map of the entire Great Barrier Reef this week. Their mapping project, undertaken in partnership with the University of Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Australian Institute of Marine Science, claims to provide unprecedented detail (to 10m horizontal grid resolution) for every one of the 3,000 reefs contained within the 350,000 square kilometres of ocean that makes up the Great Barrier Reef. Such detail on predicted coral types, water depth, geomorphic zonations and bottom types will provide an important baseline for further scientific endeavour and, no doubt, will help to pinpoint those areas that require urgent intervention.

Others are also utilizing the growing potential of satellite-derived bathymetry (SDB), which is coming of age thanks to significant advances in remote imaging and computer modelling and algorithmic power. The United Kingdom Hydrographic Office, for example, recently contracted innovative earth observation company TCarta Marine to provide a baseline dataset of water depths and seafloor classification around the Republic of Kiribati, a Commonwealth state in Micronesia. Located in the central Pacific Ocean, the country’s 110,000 inhabitants are, like so many of its near neighbours, at risk of the rising sea levels now predicted to be inevitable due to the unchecked advance of climate change. To help understand how best to protect the country, whose islands are on average only 2 metres above sea level, TCarta will use satellites to map some 5,000 square kilometres of the surrounding waters. Of great interest here is that, even at the project’s inception, the research team has already identified many new reefs.

Red Sea coral, shown using satellite-derived bathymetry. Image courtesy of TCarta.

On a macro level, scientists from the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation in Maryland, USA, and the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science launched the world’s first global coral reef atlas. The digital atlas contains maps of over 65,000 square kilometres of coral reefs and surrounding habitats, and was again collected by Earth-orbiting satellites, this time bolstered by observations in the field with traditional survey boats and divers with video cameras.

Such detailed mapping is essential to help quantify the size of the problem and target responses appropriately. Here at NLA International, we are also pleased to be working with TCarta on a joint initiative we have called Start With The Chart. This endeavour uses TCarta’s cost-effective satellite-derived bathymetry charts (with benthic habitat mapping also derived from satellites) as a platform for a broad range of potential marine and maritime interventions and decision-making processes – from navigational analysis to marine spatial planning and ecosystem management. Broadly, then, Start With The Chart supports marine and maritime policy development and governance. Within the specifics of the coral reef domain, that could help authorities to locate areas in need of urgent intervention or greater protection within broader place-based management strategies, areas which again are receiving technological boosts in several ways.

Model behaviour

As well as maintaining resilience against the effects of global warning, coral reefs are also vulnerable to the adverse effects of human activities on land. Harm can come in the form of wastewater discharge, the run-off of fertilisers as well as the more obvious intrusion aligned to greater expansion of coastal developments. In many cases, the detrimental effects of these impacts are only noticed once the damage has been done. To counter this, and enable more proactive action, researchers from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa recently used high-powered computer models to identify specific areas on land where improved wastewater management and landscape practices would lead to the greatest positive impact on nearby reefs and the ecosystems they support. By simulating various potential coastal developments and climate change scenarios, the computer modelling was able to pinpoint areas where the upgrade of cesspools and reduction of fertiliser use would benefit coral reefs both on wave-sheltered shores with low circulation (shown to be more vulnerable to land-based pollution) and those on wave-exposed shores.

Such place-based management (which again, can be informed by satellite-derived earth observation imagery) is undoubtedly an important tool in the fight to protect reefs. A broad view of place-based management is required, as coral reefs are under threat from sometimes surprising sources – rats, for example. Research undertaken recently in the British Indian Ocean Territory under the auspices of the UK’s Blue Belt programme revealed that bird droppings make for healthy reefs. So, when sea birds are driven away by invasive rat species, reef health is threatened. As scientists also recently unveiled that they had identified the presence of a previously unknown penguin colony in the Antarctic by studying their guano as identified in NASA landsat imagery, another benefit of satellite imagery becomes apparent.

A 3D visualisation from the University of California – San Diego experiment. Source: Journal of the International Coral Reef Society.

Once interventions have been implemented, significant additional resource can be required to check on progress made. Virtual reality technologies are finding a wide range of uses across Blue Economy sectors by allowing practitioners and trainees to experience sea-based activities without the cost or health and safety issues of actually travelling to potentially distant or harsh environments. Scientists at the University of California – San Diego have now combined imaging and 3D structuring software to allow the virtual assessment of how coral reefs are recovering after harmful bleaching incidents. The technology was trialed in Palmyra Atoll, south of Hawaii, which suffered a serious bleaching event in 2015. According to one of the lead researchers, by sequencing an eight-year collection of 15,000 images of the reef, 3D photographic mosaics of the ecosystem provided a virtual representation of the corals, in effect enabling them to “bring the reef back into the lab.” Virtual reality headsets enabled the researchers to ‘dive’ into the images to assess the changes that took place on the reef.

AI, robots, games and nanotech

These are merely innovations that have been announced in the past few days. Previously, eye-catching emerging approaches have included the widespread installation of artificial reefs; deploying robotic jellyfish to monitor reef health; using video game technology to allow citizen scientists to help classify corals; releasing robots to reseed reefs withmicroscopic coral larvae; and the production of a one-molecule-thick biodegradable film that floats on the ocean surface and blocks the sun’s harmful rays.

So, while some comfort can be drawn from the emergence of these innovations, particularly the convergence of satellite-derived earth observation imagery, high-powered computer modelling and human-centred place-based management, is it enough? Will such innovations lead to the kind of ‘transformative change’ that the UN insists is essential in order to put a stop to the destruction of the natural world?

Where we see real, significant investment being made in innovative technologies across Blue Economy sectors – in offshore renewables and aquaculture, for example – they are often accompanied by the promise of obvious, tangible, near- to mid-term financial returns – good for the planet, but also good for investors.

However, as coral reef conservation falls more under the preventative agenda, where will the money come from to ramp up more coral reef innovation? Where will the revenues be found to propel promising innovations out of academia and into the marketplace before it is too late? And who will pay for them within a commercial model – are any innovative business models emerging that alter the way that this dangerous conundrum is being viewed?

Please share any examples you may have related to these questions. You can follow NLA International’s LinkedIn company page here and follow us on Twitter here. Feel free to suggest or request articles on technologies being used in any Blue Economy sector.

Sources

Articles referenced include:

Human society under urgent threat from loss of Earth’s natural life, via The Guardian

Modern life ‘eroding foundations’ of human existence, driving a million species to extinction: U.N. report, via the Japan Times

UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’, via un.org

Next generation ‘may never see the glory of coral reefs’, via The Guardian

Study says Hawaii reefs provide $835M in flood protection, via CTV News

Seabirds enhance coral reef productivity and functioning in the absence of invasive rats, via nature.com

Scientists Discover Hidden ‘Supercolony’ of 1.5 Million Penguins After Tracking Poop From Space, via vice.com

Scientists Create Giant Atlas of World’s Most Remote Reefs, via gizmodo.co.uk

UKHO Contracts with TCarta, via Marine Technology News

Place-based management can protect coral reefs in a changing climate, via ScienceDaily

Virtual reality assesses coral reef recovery after bleaching, via Digital journal

Marines, BFAR install artificial reefs in Sulu, via Philippine News Agency

This Robotic Jellyfish Can Monitor The Coral Reef With Little Disruption, via therichest.com

Coral Reef Video Game Will Help Create Global Database, via Earth and Space Science News

‘Crop duster’ robot is helping reseed the Great Barrier Reef with coral, via Digital Trends

Could a floating film protect coral reefs?, via newatlas.com