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Airborne laboratory maps Hawai’i coral reefs

FOR the first time in history, the coral reefs surrounding Hawai’i’s eight major islands are being mapped in great detail. The process requires cartography from up to 12,000 feet, carried out by a team of scientists aboard an aircraft-based laboratory called the Global Airborne Observatory.

The Lenfest Ocean Program funded the project in support of Hawai’i Gov. David Ige’s “30-by-30 Initiative” to manage 30 percent of Hawai’i’s reefs by 2030.

Click to enlarge
Inside the Global Airborne Observatory.
Dr. Asner maps Hawai’i’s coral reefs from up to 12,000 feet.  Global Discovery and Conservation Science photos

“Coral reefs are in decline all over the world because of pollution, overfishing, and ocean warming,” said Charlotte Hudson, project director of the Lenfest Ocean Program. “And resources to protect and manage these critical ecosystems are needed. Projects like this — in which sophisticated mapping technologies will identify areas of live and dead coral — will lead to better, more effective management and benefit the people of Hawai’i.”

According to Dr. Greg Asner, project leader and director of Arizona State University’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, he and his team aboard the Global Airborne Observatory. gather “spatially explicit knowledge” about the state of the Hawai’ian reefs because mapping is a “foundational ingredient” to mitigating coral bleaching.

“Mapping is not the solution, but it’s part of the pathway to doing more conservation, better reef management, or better decision-making,” he told Variety.

Dr. Asner also mapped coral reef ecosystems in the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. His research for ASU is funded by several famous philanthropists, including James Cameron, Leonardo DiCaprio, and William Hearst III.

Up until a recent breakthrough in imaging technology, salt water constituted a major obstacle to capturing clear aerial images of coral reefs. But today, Dr. Asner says his team can keep track of coral reef ecosystems through the use of “imaging spectroscopy,” or imaging in “really narrow slivers of the electromagnetic spectrum.” This method allows them to see live corals up to 15 meters below the surface, differentiating their unique spectral properties from those of dead corals, algae, sand, and other objects on the sea floor. The end product is a 3D “psychedelic, kaleidoscopic” image of the sea floor in which each color represents a different group of organisms.

With this new technology, Dr. Asner’s team can not only map coral reef ecosystems but also monitor them, identifying which reefs consistently survive typhoons and hot water bleaching events.

“We want to put maximum protection on those areas for two reasons,” Dr. Asner said. “One; that’s where the living stuff still is and two; they survived for some reason that’s only partially known and those survivors are probably the parents of future corals in this region, so we want to protect those as reproduction sources.”

Dr. Asner began the one-year mapping project last March. If all goes according to plan, his maps will enable Hawai’ian leadership to make more informed decisions as they choose which reefs to save and how to save them.

When asked what he would like the CNMI community to take from his program, Dr. Asner said the following:

“Don’t give up; there is hope… There is a lot of science that can be brought to bear to help generate more resilient coral reefs. It’s very achievable through good conservation practices and fisheries management. And to do that, we need good maps. That’s why I’m doing this work.”