Sci­en­tists cre­ate 360-de­gree im­ages of Hawaii coral reefs


Along­side the lush and steep wind­ward coast of the Hawaii is­land of Oahu a team of re­searchers are cre­at­ing im­ages of coral reefs that are in dan­ger of dy­ing be­cause of warm ocean wa­ters.

The re­searchers are tak­ing high-def­i­ni­tion 360-de­gree panoramic im­ages of the reefs and us­ing them to mon­i­tor and study the health of corals over time. Sci­en­tists work­ing with the team say they are con­cerned about how much coral off the coast of Hawaii al­ready is be­gin­ning to bleach, es­pe­cially be­cause it’s the sec­ond such event in two years.

Coral bleach­ing oc­curs when ocean wa­ter tem­per­a­tures rise and cause the coral to lose key nu­tri­ents, turn­ing the nor­mally col­or­ful or­gan­ism white. If bleach­ing re­curs or is se­vere, ex­perts say the coral will die.

Reefs off the coasts of the Hawai­ian is­lands suf­fered a rare bleach­ing event in 2014, and ex­perts say when corals don’t have time to re­cover from one bleach­ing they are less likely to sur­vive sub­se­quent events.

Ex­ten­sive coral bleach­ing is ex­pected again this year in Hawaii be­cause of record hot weather in the re­gion, a strong El Nino weather pat­tern and what sci­en­tists call “the blob,” a large area of hot wa­ter not di­rectly linked to El Nino that is mov­ing west­ward from the United States main­land.

“Un­for­tu­nately, from now on the ex­tra heat is go­ing to be quite dam­ag­ing, and this is where the mor­tal­ity of the corals goes up,” said Ove Hoegh-Guld­berg, di­rec­tor of the Global Change In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of Queens­land and the re­search team’s chief sci­en­tist.

The Hawaii reef map­ping is part of a larger pro­ject by the XL Catlin Seav­iew Sur­vey re­search team to make thou­sands of im- ages of reef around the world. Re­searchers are try­ing to un­der­stand why cer­tain species of coral are more sus­cep­ti­ble to bleach­ing than oth­ers, and they hope to find or­gan­isms that can adapt to warmer wa­ters and re­main healthy.

The re­searchers use GPS tags and fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy to help iden­tify and or­ga­nize in­di­vid­ual reef sys­tems. As part of the pro­ject, the sur­vey team has part­nered with Google and up­loads the im­ages to Google Street View, al­low­ing peo­ple to ex­plore the un­der­wa­ter ecosys­tem via the In­ter­net.

The Seav­iew Sur­vey has al­ready gath­ered data from other reefs in­clud­ing those in the Mal­dives, Mexico, In­done­sia and Aus­tralia. The team had base­line im­ages of a sec­tion of the Great Bar­rier Reef that was later dam­aged by a typhoon. The crew went back to cap­ture the dam­age, giv­ing re­searchers a clear view of the loss in­volved with a ma­jor storm.

He said that’s about 30 to 50 times faster than the tra­di­tional method of pho­tograph­ing and pro­cess­ing im­ages of coral for re­search, al­low­ing them to cap­ture larger ar­eas of all the reefs they visit.

(Left) Peo­ple stand along an area of coral near Molokii Is­land in Hawaii’s Ka­neohe Bay, Satur­day, Aug. 15.


(Above) In this Aug. 13 photo pro­vided by XL Catlin Seav­iew Sur­vey, Dr. Manuel Gon­za­lez-Rivero, a post­doc­toral re­search fel­low at the The Univer­sity of Queens­land and a mem­ber of the sur­vey crew, uses a 360-de­gree un­der­wa­ter cam­era to pho­to­graph coral reefs in Ka­neohe Bay off the east coast of Oahu, Hawaii.

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