Across our planet, a group of dedicated engineers and scientists are working on a complex puzzle. The pieces? Millions of data sets, vast as our oceans, cleaned and assembled to create a complete picture of the world’s coral reefs. To build a map this size requires collaboration of epic scale; pixels captured from space by a satellite become data cleaned in the Cloud, groups of engineers take the clean data and assemble a working map with multiple layers, meanwhile, scientists in the field check what the maps tell them against what they see with the naked eye. The result is the Allen Coral Atlas
, the first 3.7m- resolution global map of the world's coral reefs.
This collaborative, worldwide, effort layers all the information in one location; a mosaic view of the current state of the world's coral reefs.
The Atlas is built and maintained through a partnership between the University of Queensland, Planet, Arizona State University’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science (GDCS), National Geographic Society, and Vulcan Inc.
The Atlas is one piece of Vulcan Inc.'s broader coral program, which takes on the daunting task of saving the world's coral reefs. Half of the world's corals have died over the past 50 years due to climate change and local stressors. Models predict the loss of between 70 and 90 percent of coral reefs by 2050. Time is running out, but the Allen Coral Atlas gives the world a baseline to understand the current state of corals and to plan for how to protect our reefs for future generations. It is only through partnerships that stretch across oceans that we can accomplish a task of this scale.
Collecting The Pixels
The first piece of the puzzle comes from our partners at Planet Labs
, who have deployed the largest constellation of Earth-observing satellites in history. The team at Planet lays the foundation
for our maps by capturing hundreds of thousands of high-resolution satellite images of coral reefs. Those pixels make up the first puzzle pieces needed to successfully build a "global mosaic" of coral reefs.
Mosaic imagery of Karimunjawa Reef (left) compared to Open Street Maps view of the same area (right). The mosaic image has much higher resolution and better visibility into reef habitats, after the satellites take photos and partners at ASU use a program to clean up the image without clouds or glare.
“Less than a hundredth of 1 percent of the world’s reefs are actively monitored for change, and when they are, they’re monitored using methods that would have been familiar to the Wright brothers. People go up in planes and literally estimate the extent of things such as coral bleaching,” Planet's Andrew Zolli told The Independent
The imagery from Planet is the first stop in this global collaboration.
Cleaning The Pixels
The next piece of the Allen Coral Atlas puzzle is placed by our partners at Arizona State University
, who developed the methodology used to clean the images. Led by Greg Asner, the ASU methodology allows Planet's engineers to identify water depth based on the color from the images taken by Planet. This is critical because "the seafloor is always covered by water and hence difficult to see with satellites
," knowing the depth adds the first and most important layer to the map, understanding where the healthy coral reefs are, or in some cases, where they used to be but are no longer.
After the raw, high-resolution images captured by Planet have undergone a careful scrub to identify depth and reflectants thanks to the ASU partnership, the clean data heads (via the Cloud) across the Pacific Ocean to the University of Queensland, where the team there begins adding the layers.
Building The Map
The pixels, clean and with clear picture of depths, arrive at the University of Queensland, where this partner begins adding layers that represent different aspects of coral reefs; taking the pixels from a grid and shaping them into a vector on a map. The layers build to create a complete understanding of the existing reef ecosystem. Layers include the type of reef such as an atoll, barrier, carbonate, or fringing reef, the geomorphic information such as whether it is a lagoon shallow or lagoon deep, and the benthic information that identifies rock, sand rubble, seagrass or algae.
When UQ's work adding all the layers needed to identify and monitor the status of coral reefs, the data heads back to Vulcan. At Vulcan, the team takes the layered maps built by UQ and transforms them into the interactive map you see today at allencoralatlas.org
Currently, the Allen Coral Atlas currently includes maps of Fiji, the central Great Barrier Reef, Heron Island, Karimunjawa, Kayankerni Reef, Lighthouse Reef, Mo'orea and West Hawai'i.
Satellites images and intricately layered maps are important, but sending the experts into the field to check our work helps us not only ensure we have the most accurate information, it also gathers new, critical data and allows us to refine our methodology to capture more truths about the state of our coral reefs.
In the next image, scroll to see the evolution from a pixel to a picture, and hopefully feel the same sense of optimism we have; that filling gaps in data will help not only bring a better understanding to the world, but motivate change and make lasting impact for corals and our oceans.