Washington, DC—Carnegie scientist Greg Asner and his Reefscape Project play a crucial role in a new partnership that’s responding to the crisis facing the world’s coral reefs and the need for global maps and monitoring systems by harnessing satellite imagery and big data processing. Less than a quarter of the world’s reefs are sporadically mapped or monitored by visual assessment from SCUBA and light aircraft or, in a very few places, lower resolution satellite images.

The partnership will provide the first-ever seamless mosaic of high resolution satellite imagery of the world’s coral reefs and will engage with the global coral reef science and management communities to deliver accurate maps of the features making up the reefs and how they are changing. The mosaic and maps and eventual change detection system will be made available to conservationists, planners and policy makers who are responsible for conserving and managing reefs.

A collaboration of Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, Planet, Carnegie, University of Queensland, and the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, the effort demonstrates commitment by leaders across disciplines to take on one of the world’s most intractable challenges, developing tools to support, inform and inspire critical conservation community measures to save our diminishing coral reefs.

“We need to know what is occurring in this hidden world of shallow coral reefs if we have any hope to save them,” said Art Min, vice president of impact for Paul Allen. “Coral reefs cover less than one percent of the ocean surface and yet nearly 1 billion people and 25 percent of all marine life depend on them.”

Asner and his team will use artificial intelligence combined with field-based observations to guide calibrations of Planet’s 3.7-meter resolution satellite data so that they account for  atmospheric effects, glare, reflectivity, and other aspects that make it difficult for mapping tools to penetrate the ocean’s surface—all of which will allow scientists from the University of Queensland to properly classify the reefs. The Carnegie team will also build a novel coral reef-monitoring system that ingests Planet satellite data on a daily basis to detect changes in coral reefs such as hot-water bleaching events or destruction from coastal development. The Carnegie change detection and alert system will be the first of its kind, and will propel a global effort to slow and reverse coral reef losses. 

“Where there is effort, there is hope,” Asner said. “I’m tired of only seeing negative news about coral reefs. I want to focus on resilience as well as danger, to highlight efforts, such as ours, to understand, manage, and conserve reef systems. Our new coral reef monitoring system made possible in this project will be the first to detect where reefs are changing, and to direct action to mitigate losses.”

In association with coral reef science and management communities, the partnership will build and refine detailed maps that depict both the reef zones and bottom cover and will develop new methodology to identify changes in coral reef status, especially bleaching, death and recovery. The global coral reef communities will play an integral role in field verification during the development of these maps.

In its first year, the partnership plans to produce the global mosaic, a global community engagement plan and five site-based maps to validate the new image processing and mapping methodology. The pilot sites were chosen to represent a variety of reef types and status from across the globe and where field verification data are readily available.

Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Moorea, French Polynesia
Lighthouse Reef, Belize
West Hawaii Island, Hawaii
Kurimunjawa, Indonesia

“Seeing change is the first step in taking responsibility for it,” said Andrew Zolli, vice president for global impact initiatives at Planet. “By putting the most complete, up-to-date picture of the world’s corals in the hands of scientists, conservationists, and communities, we hope to accelerate action on the coral crisis before it’s too late.”

Once the five sites are mapped and methodology refined, the partnership intends to scale the benthic and geomorphic mapping to regions in 2019 and then the entire globe in 2020. Also, in 2019, the use of Artificial Intelligence will be applied to detect changes on the reefs and alert conservationists and governments to the situation so that resources can be immediately engaged.

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Paul G. Allen Philanthropies

Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul G. Allen is deeply committed to ocean health and has a growing portfolio of programs targeted at the protection of the marine ecosystem. To disrupt our oceans’ unsustainable trajectory, he is leveraging his resources in data, technology and science. His team is also developing plans that could leverage their capabilities in the public policy and storytelling arenas. In addition to the many ocean-related initiatives, since 2013 Paul has supported research led by the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and the Australian Institute of Marine Science to develop human assisted evolution of coral, bred to be resilient to changing ocean conditions. For more information visit www.paulallen.com or http://www.pgaphilanthropies.org/.

Planet

Planet is an integrated aerospace and data analytics company that operates history's largest fleet of Earth-imaging satellites, collecting a massive amount of information about our changing planet. Planet is driven by a mission to image all of Earth’s landmass every day, and make global change visible, accessible and actionable. Founded in 2010 by three NASA scientists, Planet designs, builds and operates over 190 satellites, and develops the online software and tools that serves data to users. Decision makers in business, government, and within organizations use Planet's data and machine learning-powered analytics to develop new technologies, drive revenue, power research, and solve our world’s toughest challenges. To learn more visit www.planet.com and follow us on Twitter at @planetlabs.

Carnegie Institution for Science

The Carnegie Institution for Science (carnegiescience.edu) is a private, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., with six research departments throughout the U.S. Since its founding in 1902, the Carnegie Institution has been a pioneering force in basic scientific research. Carnegie scientists are leaders in plant biology, developmental biology, astronomy, materials science, global ecology, and Earth and planetary science.

 The Remote Sensing Research Centre, University of Queensland

The Remote Sensing Research Centre use remotely sensed data, field-work and spatial models to measure, map and monitor biophysical properties in terrestrial, atmospheric and aquatic environments to better understand and manage the earth’s environments and resources. Our research provides private and public sector organisations with techniques to turn satellite and airborne images and field survey data into meaningful maps or information from one or many points in time. These results can then be used to better understand where, how and why environments are changing, and to separate natural changes from those produced by humans. Coral Reefs are one of the focus environments of the RSRC, and the team have been developing and applying mapping and monitoring methods for reefs through out the Asia Pacific and the Caribean.    The Remote Sensing Research Centre is located at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at The University of Queensland.

Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology

The mission of the Hawai’I Instititute of Marine Biology (HIMB) is to conduct multi-disciplinary research and education in all aspects of tropical marine biology.  HIMB continues to be a world leader in research to understand and converve tropical marine ecosystems. We develop and implement new technologies that advance the informed stewardship of Hawai’s’s marine and coastal biodiversity. HIMB is an independent research unit within the School of Ocean Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) at the University of Hawai’I at Mānoa.

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Ecology