Saving the Future of Coral Reefs With AI

Not only do coral reefs provide a habitat for one of the most diverse and extraordinary ecosystems with approximately a quarter of all ocean life; roughly 500 million people depend on coral for their livelihoods, providing economic goods and services worth about $375 billion every year.

By the 2030s, 90% of reefs are predicted to be at risk and by 2050 you can expect all coral reefs to be in severe danger. Other than human activities, climate change and global warming directly affect the health of these vulnerable, delicate systems. Algae provide up to 90% of a coral’s energy, but in warmer water temperatures can result in coral bleaching where corals remove algae living in their tissues. Unfortunately, only some corals recover. Furthermore, it’s quite difficult for scientists to detect and mitigate bleaching until it’s already happening.

Allen Coral Atlas plans to change that. Right now Vulcan, Inc., who launched the project, is working with the company Planet to capture high 3.7m resolution images of reefs from space using a fleet of 120 small satellites – the largest group ever assembled. Everyday images fed into the system provides an all-round view of the globe. Thanks to a team of scientists at Arizona State University, artificial intelligence is then used to strip away things like the atmosphere and seawater to provide a clear image of the ocean floor.

About one-fifth of the world's coral reefs have already been lost or severely damaged.

About one-fifth of the world's coral reefs have already been lost or severely damaged.

However, to combat the issues related to climate change, the Allen Coral Atlas project cannot rely on this process alone.

In addition to the satellites, the researchers are photographing the ecosystems up close. Although the team recently revealed they mapped a mere 2% of the world’s coral, their project aims to have an entire map of the world’s reefs by the end of 2020. The images taken are put into an AI which is trained to identify and monitor the same features in the images produced by the satellites. As such, if there is a slight disturbance in particular elements of the habitat, the Allen Coral Atlas algorithm could find the cause behind it for any shallow coral reef in the world.

I’ve been doing this for 25 years. Until two years ago, we would get an image and then we’d unpack it, and spend months and even years trying to determine what was going on on the seafloor.
— Greg Asner, Arizona State University

The future of coral reefs relies on us finding and protecting reefs, at least the ones that are most likely to survive until global warming and other human activities are brought under control. Thankfully, the project will enable communities to help understand and protect their local ecosystems with the new AI-powered technology as the Allen Coral Atlas will be freely licensed for non-commercial scientific and conservation uses.

Pavan Ayyar