Allen Coral Atlas launches Reef Threats system

October 8, 2022Dr. Greg Asner

As we head into 2023 and towards the second quarter in this century, more and more of humanity continues to thumb its pressure on the world’s “blue ecosystems” such as coral reefs, seagrasses, and mangroves.  While global climate change is now a recognized existential threat, coastal communities dotting the planet are also realizing that their dependence on blue resources is growing increasingly vulnerable to a second list of challenges.  A toxic cocktail of land- and sea-based pollution, combined with increasing resource extraction, is taking out some blue ecosystems far faster than climate change. And the one-two punch of global and local stress is driving coastal losses at an accelerating rate.

In 2020, we at the Allen Coral Atlas launched the world’s first reef monitoring capability, focusing our tech on reefs that undergo major coral bleaching events.  Prior to going global, this satellite-based approach was born and raised in Hawaiian waters, where our ocean program is headquartered in the ASU Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science.  The Hawaiian Islands stretch across some 2400 km of ocean, a distance exceeding that of the Great Barrier Reef, and comprise 137 different reefs ideal for researching and engineering globally-relevant satellite and data science capabilities.  This vast and varied expanse was hit with a major marine heatwave in 2019, ultimately giving rise to the Atlas bleaching monitoring method.

Hawaii isn’t just a global laboratory, it’s my home where I have experienced firsthand how climate change is not the only existential threat to reefs.  Thousands of pressure points have emerged along our coastlines, driven by land-based pollutants from agriculture and human waste, sedimentation from nearby degraded landscapes, marine debris from a global economic engine, over-fishing, and even too much tourism.  Study after study reveals waves of coalescing pressure points generating large-scale reef decline.  Each loss weakens our resilience and our blue economy.  The process I’ve witnessed reminds me of removing pieces from a jigsaw puzzle, taken piece by piece until our picture of the world’s coral reefs fragments and becomes unrecognizable.

Land-based sediment from neighboring deforested lands covers the reef in Hawaii.

To better address many localized stresses on reefs from land, the Allen Coral Atlas has improved the coastal ocean turbidity monitoring tool. Similar to the bleaching tool, the turbidity monitoring tool was first crafted in Hawaiian waters, gleaned from detailed information on the where, when and why of “the muck”.  Muck comes from sediments and major plumes of human waste, smothering corals that generate habitat for other species and for us.  The improved turbidity monitor utilizes European Sentinel-2 satellite imagery taken on a regular basis worldwide. And although Sentinel-2 does come with some satellite-based artifacts, we feel it’s important to push monitoring boundaries to better support thousands of organizations relying on the Atlas for timely detailed information.

While each monitoring product we create offers new insight into how conditions are changing on coral reefs, we want to find out where those one-two punches are occurring.  We believe such cases offer reef conservationists and managers an opportunity for more tactical interventions.  And to further empower Atlas users, today we’re launching a new capability called REEF THREATS, an integrated monitoring platform within the Allen Coral Atlas that links changes in water temperature and water quality to coral reefs and coral bleaching. With REEF THREATS, we will see both the human drivers and the reef response with increasing breadth and detail.  And from this broadening knowledge, we know that innovative mitigation approaches will emerge on and around coral reefs worldwide.

The new REEF THREATS panel on the Allen Coral Atlas

From personal experience, and via the generous input provided by the Atlas community, we feel that reefs will greatly benefit if we continue to turn our technological focus inland to address the growing list of localized pressures, all while we battle the global specter of climate change. Going forward, we’ll continue to broaden our footprint via the REEF THREATS platform by incorporating other sea- and land-based disturbances, often crafted and shared from our home base in Hawaii.  The cliché “we can’t manage what we can’t see” has never been truer than it is today for the world’s blue ecosystems, including coral reefs.

Me ke aloha,

Dr. Greg Asner
Director, ASU Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science