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PHOTO GALLERY: Mapping the health of our endangered coral reefs

September 30th, 2013

Prof. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

From Bermuda, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg tells the Ecologist how our understanding of global environmental trends can be aided by surveying coral reef on a massive scale, and how some amazing technology is helping his team do exactly that........

We have lost 50% of the worlds coral reef in the last 50 years

I'm in the middle of the Atlantic, the other side of the world from the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland. Along with the survey team I have been up since dawn getting everything ready for the day's work. Overnight batteries have charged, our 3D sensory system needs to be calibrated, air bottles filled and portable data stored and memories cleared for reuse.

Until the launch of the Catlin Seaview Survey the work we're doing here was beyond imagining. In only 14 months we have surveyed hundreds of miles of coral reefs and captured precise geo-located images showing their health: it is on a scale far greater than I'd have thought possible in a lifetime. Last year we worked along the Great Barrier Reef. Now we're in the Atlantic and Caribbean.

This extraordinary pace has been possible by advances in technology coinciding with the wide recognition that corals are in trouble. We have lost 50% in the last 50 years. It is worrying enough for each separate ecosystem, but a greater concern because they are a barometer for the health of our vast oceans too. Catlin Group Ltd, has a track record of backing scientific research into climate change and their support, financially and other, has enabled this ambitious programme.

That's how I come to be here, on the deck of a boat on the coast of this isolated Atlantic island. I am investigating corals because they really are at the heart of global change. And you can't study global change on a small scale. It has to be big to get the bigger picture. Each regional survey is effectively a coral ‘stock-take' on its health, giving us the overall picture of how our oceans have and might change over coming decades.

We have motored several miles along the coast from BIOS (our hosts, the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Science) and we're over a reef crest. Onboard with me is a team of divers and scientists. We're all busy going through safety protocols and air checks. The divers are steering the specially designed, ingenious, SVII camera with its 360 panoramic lens system mounted on the front of their underwater scooter. It can complete a 2 kilometre transect along a reef in only 60 minutes. The cameras capture high resolution images every three seconds - a huge amount of data from each dive.

The scientists are working with them of course, but they are also studying the deep reef. This zone is beyond the reach of scuba divers and we're exploring that with a remotely operated vehicle. In the cabin of the boat we have a rig of control screens and the joystick which manoeuvres the ROV down to depths of 80-100 metres. Its mechanical arm can cut samples of coral and bring them back to the surface. This part of our work is essential.

By comparison to the shallows, virtually nothing is known about deep reefs. We suspect that deep reefs might offer some protection or even refuge from big changes such as climate change although, we still don't have the data to be sure. It would be interesting to know if devastation nearer the surface does not always mean it is repeated at greater depth. Another element that we are trying to get a handle on is to measure the 3 dimensional structure of each reef - that turns out to be critically important for providing habitat for fish and many other organisms.

Bermuda's corals are in a fairly pristine state, but it's also in the middle of the Atlantic, the ocean which is experiencing a high level of change in ocean temperature and acidity. Our survey here is part of this year's programme focused on the Caribbean and it is a stark contrast. It is a kind of control for the Caribbean work. There, the decline in coral health has been steep. In the 70's there was 80% coral cover - but since that time coral reefs have been on a ski slope of downward change.

The reasons for this change are multiple and include poor coastal zone management, overfishing and climate change. By using the same, extensive, methodology we are in the process of surveying the Caribbean. In the last 6 weeks we have surveyed over 40 sites. Ultimately we will have a picture of the world's reefs which have been obtained in the exactly the same way: applying a global measure rigorously and repeatedly. This kind of scale sits on top of the usual manually intensive, smaller scale, surveys. It will give us the bigger picture we have been seeking, with data about areas badly affected as well as precise locations for areas which may offer hope.

Today we'll be able to complete three 60 minute transects. We need to allow time to collect the crew from the end of their run, get them onboard, reload batteries, take off the data and drive to the next location whilst the divers take a de-gassing break. Tonight, the day's data will be backed up to two separate systems to ensure nothing can be lost. Ultimately, the survey data will find its way to the SCRIPPS Institute in California where they will ‘stitch' the images together before a programme similar to facial recognition software, will begin automatic species identification. It's proving 16 times faster than a human researcher and this rapidly improving in its reliable. A genuine breakthrough.

Throughout the survey I will be sharing our findings though virtual briefings so that all our data and much, much more besides will be openly available to any scientist as well as to the mildly curious. NOAA, the World Resource Institute, IUCN and the Global Change Institute are all providing additional data. It is already a vast record, but will quickly grow into a data archive of huge proportions. We hope that others will be able to upload their own images on locations already surveyed, adding to the baseline data we are collecting. It is going to shorten the publication of data, get information shared quickly and enable reports on health, threats and concerns to be communicated effectively.

I'm struck too by how far we have been able to get since the 4th IPCC Assessment Report. In the 4th report, corals were identified as one of the most sensitive habitats to ocean change. Our team's work has come too late to be considered by the panel of the just published 5th climate report, but we are getting vital baseline data to measure global ocean changes long into the future, in a way that can be responsive if it needs to be.

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg is Chief scientist of the Catlin Seaview Survey and Director of the Global Change Institute, University of Queensland. He is also a coordinating lead author on the Ocean chapter for the IPCC's 5th Assessment Report. 

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