Coral bleaching: New AI project expects to map all the word’s reefs by end of next year

The effort is inspired by late philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen

Andrew Buncombe
Sunday 28 July 2019 23:22 BST
Scientists discover ‘unbelievable’ deep-sea coral reef off coast of South Carolina

When tech entrepreneur Paul Allen returned from a diving trip to Mauritius, he was not a happy man.

The billionaire Microsoft co-founder was an avid diver, and had been privileged to visit some of the best dive sites in the world. But his October 2017 visit to the Indian Ocean coincided with the third and largest global coral bleaching. He saw up close the devastation that was caused, triggered by a warming planet.

“Paul had a deep love of the oceans; he would say that being underwater was one of his favourite places in the world,” says Lauren Kickham, director of impact at Vulcan Inc, which Allen established in 1986 to oversee his business and philanthropic interests.

“After a trip to one of his favourite dive sites, when there had been no coral left, he tasked us with saving the world’s coral reefs.”

Allen, who was first diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in 1982, died last year at the age of 65. But his dream of saving the planet’s coral wasn’t forgotten.

A team of satellite mappers, marine scientists and naturalists began mapping and monitoring all the world’s reefs – resulting in the Allen Coral Atlas. At a recent presentation in Seattle, they revealed that while they had tracked just 2 per cent of the world’s coral, they hoped to have completed the task by the end of 2020.

The global coral map is updated every day, and uses advances in artificial intelligence to issue alerts when reef health declines. This monitoring system means that when crises hit, such as bleaching or shipwrecks, local authorities and conservationists will be able to act quickly.

“This is game-changing,” says Greg Asner, director of Arizona State University’s centre for global discovery and conservation science. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years. Until two years ago, we would get an image and then we’d unpack it, and spend months and even years trying to determine what was going on on the sea floor.”

He adds: “Now, we’re getting images every day from all over the world in [real] time.”

Asner says there was a recent incident in one of the northern areas of the Marshall Islands where a tanker ran aground, a long way from where the authorities were based in the south.

“The first image of this happening was from our project,” he says. “I had colleagues there, and they took the picture to the environmental agency, and they found that the tanker had spilled a large amount of fuel oil. The process for them was how them to mitigate that. But we had the image, the next day.”

He says anywhere up to a billion people depend directly on coral for their livelihoods, but that even larger numbers benefit from their association with fisheries and the breaking of storm surges.

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A report published earlier this year by the UN about challenges to biodiversity warned that up to a million species were threatened with extinction. It said around one third of reef-forming corals were at risk.

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting safety net,” warned Sandra Diaz, a renowned Argentine ecologist who co-chaired the report. “But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point.”

The images used by Asner and others are provided by Planet Labs, a California-based company that operates 120 satellites to provide almost real-time images. The new images provided by the latest generation of satellites – lighter, smaller and cheaper – means Planet Labs can detect deforestation, the growth of cities, sea ice, and even the spread of camps for refugees or internally displaced people.

Andrew Zolli, the company’s vice president of global impact, says the team is fond of saying: “You can’t save something you cannot see.”

“These problems tend to be remote from our everyday experience,” he says.

Paul Allen, here in 2014, was inspired to start a coral project after seeing bleaching firsthand
Paul Allen, here in 2014, was inspired to start a coral project after seeing bleaching firsthand (Getty)

“We hand these data sets to scientists,” Zolli adds. “The challenge is how to turn big data into action.”

The map being produced for the coral atlas will comprise the highest resolution images of the world’s reefs seen so far.

“What we know about the coral reefs is that they are under tremendous stress, specifically from climate change and human development. Yet no high-resolution map of the world’s coral reefs exists,” he says.

“Less than a hundredth of 1 per cent of the world’s reefs are actively monitored for change, and when they are, they’re monitored using methods that would have been familiar to the Wright brothers. People go up in planes and literally estimate the extent of things such as coral bleaching.”

He adds: “We’re using an early 20th-century solution to deal with a global 21st-century problem, and we’re failing at it badly.”

Allen, who died last October and was said to have a fortune of more than $20bn (£16bn) at the time of death, did not have an entirely seamless relationship with the oceans. In January 2016, it was reported that one of his yachts, the 303ft MV Tatoosh, unintentionally destroyed a large part of a coral reef in the Cayman Islands with its anchor chain.

A spokesperson for Vulcan said at the time that Allen was not in the Caribbean when the incident took place, and questioned the reported scale of the damage the accident caused.

A Vulcan spokesperson told The Independent: “It was never determined that the coral injury in the Cayman Islands was caused by the Tatoosh, as there was a long history of incidents in that location. Regardless, in 2016, Vulcan quickly commissioned leading experts in coral and reef restoration to rebuild, protect and preserve the local ecosystem for generations to come.”

Helen Fox has the task of using the data produced by the Allen-inspired project and working with local communities. She says sometimes they are able to piggyback on existing projects; sometimes they start new initiatives.

They also work with conservationists and students to dive and take images pegged to a GPS tracker, to help validate the maps produced the satellites.

Fox, a senior director at the National Geographic Society, says the goal “is to have a network of engaged users who can receive alerts if there are bleaching events or ship groundings”.

She says the unique aspect of the project is the speed with which it provides images, matched with its global scale.

“We’ve never had anything like that before,” she says. “It just opens up whole new avenues of possibility.”

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