Heal: Emerging technology making the world healthier

Why We Should Bring Coral Reefs Online

By enabling comprehensive, crowd-sourced virtual models of ocean environments, connective technology could help save the coral reefs that make our oceans vibrant.

Coral reefs make up some of the largest living structures on Earth, and at 25 million years old, they’ve survived and thrived for much longer than our species has been around. Unfortunately, human activity has contributed significantly to the destruction of these beautiful creatures.

But there are scientists like John McManus, professor and director of the National Center for Coral Reef Research at the University of Miami, who are using data and computer modeling to create virtual coral reefs that can save the real reefs worldwide.

A coral reef’s vibrant colors come from photosynthetic algae-like organisms called zooxanthellae that live in a coral’s tissue. The zooxanthellae process sunlight to create nutrients that feed the coral; in turn, the coral provides zooxanthellae with the carbon dioxide and ammonium they need for photosynthesis.

Exploring what happens when possibility becomes reality.

When coral undergoes stress, such as when the sea surface temperature rises, it expels the zooxanthellae, exposing the coral’s white calcium carbonate skeleton in a process called bleaching. A bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 caused 90 percent of its 1,430-mile-long stretch to suffer at least some damage. That damage causes a ripple effect that leaves some species of fish without homes and others without food sources.

“It’s a complex system of ecology,” McManus said. “The only way we’re going to put all that together is through a computer modeling system.” McManus’ virtual coral reef combines geometric modeling and variables like hydrodynamics and sedimentation to determine how a particular coral community changes over time.

“Given a diameter of a piece of coral and a rough description, I can tell you its calcium carbonate load, the biomass load, and the spaces for particular kinds of fish to hide,” McManus explained. “I can link that to my community model and show over time how the spaces for certain sizes of fish change.”

McManus said he is rushing to finish his model to show what can be gained by protecting coral reefs through a change in human behavior. That’s important because coral reefs absorb 97 percent of wave energy, which protects coastlines and the people who live there. “Roughly 100 million people around the world will suffer if this wave-reducing capacity disappears,” said McManus, who believes that awareness needs to be raised about the very human costs of neglecting our reefs.

He hopes to use his computer models to advocate for a Marine Peace Park in the reef-rich South China Sea, where overfishing, territorial disputes, and the installation of military bases have led to habitat destruction.

Support for projects like McManus’ can come from a surprising source: everyday people with internet access. The Coral Reef Data Monitoring Portal provides resources for people to learn how to gather data about their local reefs and add it to an online database that local and national organizations can use to inform their reef strategies.

Another project, ReefQuest, is the first project to attempt to build virtual, panoramic sections of reefs. It helps students and citizens learn how to survey their local reefs and add their data and pictures to virtual reef tours hosted online. ReefQuest’s primary mission is to survey reefs over time in order to track changes and identify which areas need the most protection; one of its secondary goals is to allow people to tour whole reefs virtually. The hope, though, is to heal and save our reefs before virtual tours are the only way we can see them.

The Possibility Report is an ongoing series about how technology is changing our understanding of the world around us. This article is part of HEAL, our discussion about the ways technology can be used to heal human bodies, animal populations, and the entire planet.