News + Opinions

By April Keller

What if scientists could be even more proactive instead of reactive to coral reef bleaching events around the world? 

The Allen Coral Atlas is one step to making that a reality. With the development of its latest feature, scientists using the Allen Coral Atlas have the ability to see predictions of marine heating areas, and simultaneously assess the location, extent and severity of coral bleaching events.

This new shallow coral reef monitoring system piloted in the Hawaiian Islands creates a weekly updated view of “observed brightening,” likely to be coral bleaching.

“This is years in the making and personally satisfying that Hawaii is the proof-of-concept site. Our team was able to work coral by coral, reef by reef, day in and day out to make this happen,” said Greg Asner, Director of Global Discovery and Conservation Science at Arizona State University and an Allen Coral Atlas partner.

In addition, integrated data with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Coral Reef Watch (CRW) time series data will ultimately facilitate more focused allocation of slim resources to areas where corals are most in need.

Below, Asner talks through the new Atlas functionality, how it's a game-changer in the space and why he continues to remain hopeful about coral reef conservation.

Arizona State University's Greg Asner

Tell us about the latest addition of bleaching monitoring on the Allen Coral Atlas – what information is it providing that didn’t exist before?

For the first time, we’re able to monitor coral reefs for changes in color that might be associated with bleaching along with other events that harm reefs. This innovation has never existed anywhere on the planet at a large scale and certainly never before on a global scale. 

How does it work? How does data from other partners come into play?

The monitoring system takes two major types of data. The first is data from the NOAA coral reef watch sea surface temperature monitoring system, which identifies regions around the planet that are undergoing ocean warming. These so-called “marine heatwaves” occur kind of like a heatwave passing through a city—they pop up and may last anywhere from four to sometimes 12 or even 16 weeks—sometimes even longer.

When NOAA sees this happening with their satellites, we then turn on our monitoring system to look for any sort of major changes in the color of the coral reef below the water surface. To do that, we use weekly observations from Planet Dove satellites. These are small breadbox-sized satellites that provide 3.7-meter spatial resolution information about coral reefs. We use those for as many weeks as needed to track the bleaching event. After the bleaching event, we continue to monitor the Earth’s sea surface temperatures to look out for other events. 

What is Hawaii facing when it comes to coral bleaching?

Coral bleaching has been occurring at an increasing frequency over the past many decades across certain parts of the planet. People mostly hear about repeated bleaching events occurring in the Great Barrier Reef; in addition, the Caribbean also experiences them.

Given Hawaii’s location of about 19 to 21 plus degrees North, the region has historically been outside of the warmer tropical waters that cause the kind of frequent bleaching observed in the Caribbean and Great Barrier Reef. Until more recent years, Hawaii has been spared but just in the past five years, we’ve had three events that, considered together, are unprecedented.

They represent what Hawaii faces, which is rapid increases in marine heatwaves directly associated with ocean warming events driven by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So Hawaii, like most coral reef-related regions on the planet, is undergoing more frequent coral bleaching. By 2050, Hawaii could be facing marine heatwave conditions that occur every year.

This combination is a real game-changer because we no longer have to monitor the entire planet all the time...allowing us to focus in on regions that pose a potential problem as marine heatwaves occur. 

Greg Asner

How much of a game-changer is this combination of data when it comes to mitigating or halting coral bleaching in Hawaii? How will you be using the data?

CRW is NOAA’s dataset from satellites. The satellites do not see the coral reefs; instead, they see the very top layer—about a millimeter deep— of the ocean. The satellites are able to uniquely see the temperature of the top layer and provide data on how warm it is.

This provides us with a means to monitor the entire planet for the occurrence of a marine heatwave, which allows us to then reduce the total effort in what we do uniquely, which is to monitor the reef’s response to the warming water. So in summary, NOAA monitors the drivers of bleaching—increasing sea surface temperatures—while the Allen Coral Atlas monitors the response of the reefs. This combination is a real game-changer because we no longer have to monitor the entire planet all the time and that reduces data volume, data storage, and total effort, allowing us to focus in on regions that pose a potential problem as marine heatwaves occur. 

Why are partnerships and technology so important in conservation efforts?

The technology and resources united through the Allen Coral Atlas partnerships allow us to do way more together than any single organization could ever achieve by itself. Our center, for example, collaborates with many different partners, including the mapping team at University of Queensland in Australia.

We work with NOAA to assess where ocean marine heatwaves might be occurring. We work with Planet to acquire the satellite data feeds we then analyze using technology developed by our ASU team and brought to life on the website by Vulcan. This technology can assess whether a reef is bleaching or not.

Additionally, National Geographic Society works with people in the field who both check the bleaching data and integrate it with other factors such as bleaching-related changes to fish populations and other factors we’re unable to see from space or by air. We rely on these field programs for connectivity.

The conservation, management, and policy sectors are also critical circles of partnerships we maintain and we continue to expand so that all of this science can inform the thinking and action processes of the organizations responsible for mitigating and adapting reefs into the future, especially under a changing climate.

What’s next for you and your work? What gives you hope?

Next for our team is to continue to expand and roll out the monitoring system meaning improved technology, improved scientific methods, deeper connectivity with our partners, and much more fieldwork. We're also expanding in the education space within our sea and land programs at GDCS.

The next few years will see a lot of overall growth. What gives me hope is our widening net of partners and of practitioners who not only need our science but are also interested in maintaining a long-term partnership with us. It gives me hope that people are coming to the table to find our common needs. We’re already seeing solutions popping up in different parts of the planet.

Whether those solutions are focused on mitigating changes to coral reefs due to bad human practices, such as poor coastal development, or whether they inform site selection for coral reef restoration, a wide range of solutions come together in a partnership like the Allen Coral Atlas.

Data Point: Greg Asner