Coral reef researchers are testing an artificial intelligence tool they hope could one day be used to closely monitor the health of reefs around the world.
Reef ecosystems are threatened by rising sea temperatures, but monitoring their changes on a large scale has always been a huge challenge, according to Dr Manuel Gonzalez-Rivero of the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences.
“The area is very large, the Great Barrier Reef alone has around 4000 reefs… you only have an hour of air in your scuba tank,” he told AAP.
Researchers typically take detailed underwater photos of selected sections of a particular reef, then spend many hours identifying and recording the species, and determining their health status.
But Dr Gonzalez-Rivero, along with scientists from the reefs of the Pacific Islands, has developed a tool called ReefCloud that uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to analyze photographic data.
He says when researchers upload images, ReefCloud is 700 times faster at identifying corals than scientists themselves.
“You only need to analyze 10% of the images and the machine can do the rest with very precise results,” said Dr Gonzalez-Rivero.
Currently, around 100 scientists are using ReefCloud in Palau, Australia, Fiji, Maldives and the Caribbean, but it is hoped that the open access platform will be available to researchers around the world from the early 2022.
Dr Gonzalez-Rivero said an updated, large-scale picture of reef health is vital for decision-makers trying to manage reefs, some of which are declining faster than scientists can keep up with.
Threats to reefs include climate change, ocean acidification, nutrient and sediment pollution from agriculture and overfishing.
Last year, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network released its latest snapshot of the health of the world’s reefs, showing that in the past decade or so, 14% of the world’s corals have been lost.
Over about the same time, algae growth, an indicator of reef stress, increased by 20%.
These developments are linked to rapid and sustained increases in sea surface temperatures, which are expected to intensify in the decades to come.
Coral reefs cover only 0.2% of the seabed but are home to at least a quarter of all ocean species.
Dr Gonzalez-Rivero said threats to reef health are facing, with reefs facing almost annual bleaching events from which they may not recover.
“I hope that we will make progress in the fight against climate change… If we act, there is hope,” he said.
Associated Australian Press