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Eye in the sky: UQ's world-first system brings new view to coral bleaching

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A world-first satellite monitoring system installed by Queensland and American scientists will begin scanning the world’s oceans to spot coral-killing reef bleaching in real time.

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The global reef scanner, put in place through an international research collaboration including University of Queensland scientists, will check more than 230,000 coral reefs to see when they are in danger of being destroyed.

It will allow scientists and conservation organisations to target reef rescue missions as soon as coral starts dying from heat stress and as soon as it begins to bleach.

Dr Chris Roelfsema from UQ’s Remote Sensing Research Centre said the new tool, called the Allen Coral Atlas, was desperately needed.

“This monitoring capability will help us to see where and to what extent coral bleaching is likely to be occurring as well as where it isn’t bleaching so we can identify resilient reefs,” Roelfsema said.

“The platform can observe where corals are bleaching throughout the world, ranging from no bleaching to severe.

“Once we know where this is happening, governments and non-government organisations on the ground can swoop in to take action sooner, rather than later.”

Roelfsema said the world’s coral reefs had a bleak prognosis and needed the new system that offered never-before-seen detail on every major reef around the world.

The satellite imagery could detect differences in reef brightness, while the data would be fed into an algorithm that analysed how severely a reef was under stress.

“With ever-warming, more polluted and acidic oceans, models predict that 70 per cent to 90 per cent of coral reefs will be lost by 2050,” he said.

“Until now, there hasn’t been a global system in place to monitor coral reefs under the stresses that may lead to their deaths.”

The Great Barrier Reef has already suffered three mass coral bleaching events in five years and lost half its corals since 1995.

With no intervention to protect the reef, CSIRO research suggests average coral cover across each of the Great Barrier Reef’s 3,753 individual reefs could drop to just 3 per cent by 2070.

Corals can become stressed when water around them rises just 1 degree Celsius above their tolerance level.

It has also recently been discovered that the process of coral bleaching can be deceiving, with a reef often looking like it was thriving even though it was in its death throes.

“Bleaching isn’t as simple as going from a living coral to a bleached white one,” University of Miami Marine Sciences Professor Sam Purkis wrote in The Conversation.

“After they expel the algae, the corals turn fluorescent pinks and blues and yellows as they produce chemicals to protect themselves from the sun’s harmful rays.

“The entire reef was turning psychedelic colours, but then the corals turn white and start to die.”

 

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