Disappearing Reefs: A Hard Problem to Solve

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coral_reef_gpsAccording to the World Resources Institute’s study ‘Reefs at Risk Revisited,’ 75% of coral reefs located in the world’s seas are threatened by a host of different factors including overfishing, climate change, and pollution.

Scientists predict that this number will climb as high as 95% by 2030. By 2050, that number should reach almost 100%. Why is this happening?

When ocean water becomes warmer due to climate change, acidity levels rise. This, in turn, creates conditions that are not ideal for any reef ecosystem.

The Bigger Picture

Coral reefs are estimated to provide tourism dollars to many different parts of the world. It is estimated that around $9.6 billion dollars per year are spent on reef tourism. Islands like Cozumel, in Mexico, depend entirely on tourist dollars brought by an attraction to deep sea reef diving. Imagine what would happen to an economy like Cozumel’s were reefs to disappear.

Additionally, fisheries depend on the reef ecosystem in order to generate revenue – to the tune of $5.7 billion per year (according to the ‘National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’). But, it’s not just about the money. There’s more to this problem.

Reefs Provide Protection

Did you know reefs can be protective? During Hurricane Sandy, for example, the use of oyster reefs was discussed in order to protect New York from damage. Reefs around the world can also be used in this manner. What can be done?

One suggestion is to bring Google Street View to the ocean. This would provide the rest of the world a way to look “into” the reef issue. Google’s location and viewing data can also be used and collected by researchers – a field of study that has made major technological progressions.

Then And Now

When reefs were studied in the past, scientists used the old-school ruler, chain, and still camera to capture surroundings and record both size and location data.

The old research scenario would look something like this: scientists would use the ruler for scale, take a picture, head to the next part of the reef, take another picture, and so on and so forth. The chain would be used to show the contours of the reef. As you can see, this is a long, drawn out process that can take ages to complete!

Enter the GPS tracker. Scientists can now use a high-definition camera equipped with a GPS tracker to record GPS location data and topographical information. One team of scientists working near the Great Barrier Reef is using GPS tracking software and equipment in conjunction with a high-definition camera to snap images and record data – kind of like the location data setting on your smartphone.

Interpreting The Data

To help decipher the 200,000 images taken at the Great Barrier Reef and other locations in the Caribbean, the ‘Scripps Institution of Oceanography’ is helping researchers identify the types of coral that exist in each image. How? Facial recognition software, of course.

The process of deciphering the types of reef caught on film used to take almost 10 years when analyzed by human eyes. The new GPS software allows scientists to get the job done in mere hours – that’s a huge difference!

Reefs may go unnoticed for the most part (and some of us will never see them!), but they are a vital part of our world. Thankfully, GPS tracking devices can help maintain the delicate balance of our reef system, so that the planet can continue to thrive.

 

Photo Credit: USFWS Via Fickr Creative Commons

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