Scientists look for secrets of healthy coral reefs in Indonesia's Coral Triangle

August 2, 2018, 2:17 p.m.
A diver inspects healthy coral in the Coral Triangle around the island of Sulawesi.
Photo: The Ocean Agency/Paul G. Allen Philanthropies

The past few years haven't been good for coral reefs. Global warming has resulted in coral bleaching, when coral expel the algae living in their tissues. When this happens, the coral turns white. While this doesn't mean the coral is dead, it does mean the coral faces an increased risk of death.

One reef, however, seemed to survive the recent spate of bleaching events without too much trouble. A portion of the Coral Triangle, a 2.2-million square-mile area (5.7 million square kilometers) of ocean waters between Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste, survived the bleaching just fine. In fact, some coral was in better shape than it was in 2014, the last time this particular 1,487-square-mile area was surveyed.

Scientists from the University of Queensland used underwater scooters equipped with 360-degree cameras to photograph up to 1.5 miles of the reef at a time. They then fed the images through an artificial intelligence program that compared the images to photos taken in 2014.

From the initial batch of images, the program found that there appeared to be little to no deterioration of the reef. There are some 56,000 images to be analyzed.

"After several depressing years as a coral reef scientist, witnessing the worst-ever global coral bleaching event, it is unbelievably encouraging to experience reefs such as these," Emma Kennedy, a British scientist who led the international team behind the project, said in a statement.

"It means we still have time to save some coral reefs through the science-based targeting of conservation action."

Reefs like the one surveyed in Indonesia could help reefs that have been harmed by climate change. It's vital work since nearly a quarter of ocean life call coral reefs home and more than 500 million people rely on reefs for food and income.

You can see some gorgeous 360-degree images on our Facebook page and learn more about the project through a Q&A with Kennedy.

The expedition was funded by Paul G. Allen Philanthropies.

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