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Sustaining coral reefs

Coral reefs occupy less than one per cent of the ocean area but are among its most valuable ecosystems. They are home to a quarter of all marine species, protect thousands of kilometres of coastline and support the livelihoods of an estimated one billion people around the world. 

Yet coral reefs, and the communities they support, face tremendous challenges. Despite the advances made by local communities in the management of local stressors – such as pollution, overfishing, dynamiting and dredging – climate change has emerged as a universal threat that cannot be tamed by local efforts alone. Indeed, a recent report from the University of Hawaii at Manoa indicates that 70-90 per cent of Earth’s coral reef habitats may disappear in the next few decades.

Coral reefs occupy less than one per cent of the ocean area but are among its most valuable ecosystems

In response to this, local communities, conservation organisations, federal agencies and scientists alike are driving a global effort to save these precious ecosystems. Thanks to their work, new knowledge is constantly being generated and new technologies are being developed. But a giant chasm exists. How to turn numbers, charts and code into actionable data for millions of stakeholders? And how to make data universally accessible and acceptable across vast oceans, languages and cultures?   

These are the questions that led Anne L Cohen, a scientist for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), to propose the creation of a “digital twin” – a digital replica of an actual coral reef based on data. Digital twin technology is already widely used in industry and healthcare, where replicas of engines, networks and bodies are used to analyse problems and test different solutions. These in turn help stakeholders measure the kind of impact that they might have in the real world. For Cohen and her team, a digital version of a living, breathing reef could provide the opportunity to communicate data and information via a common visual language, as well as supplying stakeholders with the tools that they need to convert that data into action.

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A recent report suggests that 70-90 per cent of Earth’s coral reef habitats may disappear in the next few decades.

With these goals in mind, a broad alliance was forged: The Digital Twin Network for the Coral Reef Blue Economy. This multi-sector, multi-disciplinary partnership brings together WHOI, The Nature Conservancy, Marshall Islands Conservation Society, the universities of Stanford, San Diego and Guam, and Siemens’ experts in digital twin technology. 

Following an initial phase that saw users provide feedback on a prototype model, the first working coral-reef digital twin will be a replica of Palmyra Atoll, a US territory in the central tropical Pacific. But this is just the beginning: thanks to highly transferable and scalable technology, the idea of a vast, international digital reef network is a very real possibility, which would facilitate the rapid exchange of data, information and knowledge on a global scale.

The digital reef project will serve as a tool for everyone to better understand the challenges in front of them

Ultimately, the core idea behind the digital reef project is that each one will serve as infrastructure for making management decisions, predicting and preparing for change and investing in the future. It will serve as a tool for everyone to better understand the challenges in front of them, while facilitating collaboration between different parties. This means that environmental managers, coastal communities, fishermen and researchers can all access the same user-friendly data and then engage with each other to save some of the most beautiful places in the world.

Read more here.

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