Researchers create first detailed map of global coral


Story and photos by The Associated Press

Researchers have completed a comprehensive online map of the world’s coral reefs by using more than 2 million satellite images from across the globe.

The new atlas will act as a reference for reef conservation, marine planning and coral science as researchers try to save these fragile ecosystems that are being lost to climate change.

Named the Allen Coral Atlas after late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and completed in September 2021, the global, high-resolution map is the first of its kind. It provides detailed information about local reefs, including types of submarine structure such as sand, rocks, seagrass and, of course, coral.

The maps, which include areas up to 15 meters deep, are being used to inform policy decisions about marine protected areas, spatial planning for infrastructure such as docks and seawalls and coral restoration projects.

“Our biggest contribution in this achievement is that we have a uniform mapping of the entire coral reef biome,” said Greg Asner, the project’s managing director and director of Arizona State University’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science.

Asner said a network of hundreds of field contributors provided information about reefs so that researchers could program their satellites and software to focus on the right areas. “And that lets us bring the playing field up to a level where decisions can be made at a bigger scale because so far decisions have been super localized,” Asner said. “If you don’t know what you’ve got more uniformly, how would the U.N. [United Nations] ever play a real role? How would a government that has an archipelago with 500 islands make a uniform decision?”

The atlas includes a coral bleaching monitor to check for corals that are stressed due to global warming and other factors. Asner said about 75% of the world’s reefs had not previously been mapped in such detail and many not at all.

The project began in 2017 when Allen’s philanthropic foundation, Vulcan Inc., was working with Ruth Gates, a Hawaii researcher whose idea of creating “super coral,” a species that can survive extreme conditions, for reef restoration was funded by Vulcan. Gates and Vulcan brought in Asner because of his work with the Global Airborne Observatory, which was mapping reefs in Hawaii at the time.

Allen, who said he wanted to help save the world’s coral reefs, liked the idea of using technology to visualize data, so Gates connected the group with the satellite company Planet, and Allen funded the project for about U.S. $9 million.

The University of Queensland in Australia used artificial intelligence technology and local reference data to generate the layers on the atlas. The maps can be viewed online.

Allen and Gates died in 2018, leaving Asner and others to carry on the work. “Ruth would be so pleased, wouldn’t she?” Asner said. “She would just be tickled that this is really happening.” He said a third of the calls he gets are from researchers hoping to use the maps to “be sure that their planning and their reef restoration work is going to have its max efficacy.”

When Gates found out she was sick, she selected friend and colleague Helen Fox from the National Geographic Society to help conservation groups use the tool. “It really was a global effort,” said Fox, who is now the conservation science director for Coral Reef Alliance. “There were huge efforts in terms of outreach and helping people be aware of the tool and the potential scientific and conservation value.”

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