Massive expansion of ocean survey to study impact of climate change on coral reefs

Catlin Seaview Survey camera
© Catlin

Last year's seminal coral reef survey of the Great Barrier Reef by the Catlin Seaview Survey was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to documenting and understanding the effects of climate change and ocean acidification on the world's coral reefs, but it was a big step in learning about the changes that are happening under the ocean.

And now the Catlin survey is launching a massive new campaign that will put its focus on the Caribbean and Bermuda, taking hundreds of thousands of high-resolution panoramic images for semi-automated image analysis in order to monitor the reef conditions.

The world's coral reefs have been called the “canary in the coal mine” for ocean acidification and climate change, and with the loss of an estimated 40% of reefs in the last 50 years due to pollution, exploitation, and extreme weather events, it's more important than ever before that we begin to understand how they are affected and how they are changing.

“The Caribbean was chosen to launch the global mission because it is at the frontline of risk. Over the last 50 years, 80 percent of the corals in many places in the Caribbean have disappeared because of coastal development and pollution. They now are also threatened by invasive species, climate change and ocean acidification – it’s the perfect storm." - Richard Vevers, Project Director for Catlin Seaview Survey.

The new Catlin Seaview Survey will begin in Belize, and then cover Bermuda, Mexico, the Bahamas, and other areas of the Caribbean, using specially-built cameras. The hi-res panoramic images will all be GPS-tagged and used for both scientific analysis and to help show the rest of the world what's happening under the waters in these areas.

The new survey will focus on four major goals:

1. Change detection – creating a Caribbean-wide ecological baseline: Accurate measurements of the current state of the coral reefs in the Caribbean are crucial to support timely decisions about their management.

2. Understand stress within the Caribbean – when, where and how much?: The Catlin Seaview Survey team will use direct measurements as well as information from NOAA and NASA satellite systems to understand how patterns in the health of coral reefs (e.g. coral cover, reef complexity) are influenced by local and global stressors such as changes in sea temperature, coastal pollution, fishing intensity, and exposure to wave stress and storms. This will fill in critical gaps in our understanding of why coral reefs have been in decline over the past 50 years.

3. Understanding climate change vulnerability: Develop deeper insights into mesophotic (deep-water) coral reef communities: The Catlin Seaview Survey’s work during 2012 on the Great Barrier Reef has revealed that mesophotic coral reefs may play an essential role in regenerating shallow water reef systems. The Survey will gather a more comprehensive understanding of the threat of climate change to coral reefs in the Caribbean by using similar techniques and technologies to map mesophotic coral reefs in the region and to investigate the genetic connectedness of those reefs to shallow water reef systems.

4. Produce new tools for understanding changes in tropical reef systems: Rapid, semi-automated and rigorous surveys of coral reefs are essential for developing an understanding of the rates of change, vulnerability and priorities for management intervention.

For this campaign, a new camera has been developed, the SVII-S, which can be operated by a single diver, in order to cover the expanded survey areas and free up other team members to cover other areas.

According to Catlin, some 500 million people around the world rely on the coral reefs for not just food, but also for a source of income (including tourism), and with the decline of the reefs, the impacts on those populations could be severe.

To see the hi-res panoramic images from the previous survey, go to their panoramic image gallery and take a virtual dive.

Massive expansion of ocean survey to study impact of climate change on coral reefs
The planned analysis of hundreds of thousands of panoramic images of coral reefs around the world could give us a baseline for understanding the effects of climate change on these important ecosystems.

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