Saving Caribbean Coral Reef With A High-Tech Hand

Carnegie Airborne Observatory researchers map coral reefs in Caribbean to aid with post-hurricane reconstruction.

Mapping coral reefs from up high
Mapping coral reefs from up high
Paul Tullis

ST. CROIX The Carnegie Airborne Observatory spent 16 days flying over a region devastated by hurricanes, using advanced tools to discover the extent of coral reef cover and assess its condition. The data will help with coral restoration efforts.

Researchers deployed the world's most advanced Earth measurement system over the Caribbean Sea this month to chart coral reefs in unprecedented detail. The maps will be used to develop marine conservation plans in a region devastated last year by back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes.

Operated by the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO), the project will create the first high-resolution maps of the shallow waters off St. Croix, the United States Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic. The information will help the Nature Conservancy environmental group, which organized the initiative, plan coral reef restoration and protection. Scientists flew two flights a day for 16 consecutive days in April and May to gather data on reef ecosystems showing where they're in trouble and which spots provide the best opportunity for restoration and development of new coral colonies. Note: June 8 marked World Oceans Day

After hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the Caribbean hard last year, its reefs sustained significant damage. But no one really knows how much because so few are mapped – reef extent worldwide is known at about 50 percent accuracy. "It's like saying we don't know where forests are," says Greg Asner, the Carnegie Airborne Observatory's founder and director.

Asner started the CAO, part of the Carnegie Institution for Science, in 2005 after 15 years working with NASA. He decided he wanted to apply his approach to conservation and has focused the CAO on mapping tropical forests' biodiversity and biomass, animal ecology and conservation, and coral reefs. The reefs work is geared toward searching for live coral refugia – spots where coral species persist despite dying off in surrounding areas – and identifying seafloor habitats with potential for accelerating restoration efforts, such as planting coral nurseries.

"All those applications require high-tech imaging," Asner says.

So he built a lab inside a plane. Now in its third generation and known as CAO3, it holds five instruments that complement each other: a custom-built, high-powered, twin-laser Lidar device that sends 500,000 pulses of light per second at the ground to determine position, similar to the way sonar locates objects using sound; cameras capable of collecting data to a resolution of 10cm (3.9in) from an altitude of 1,000m (3,300ft); and two hyperspectral imaging devices, which show light beyond the wavelengths visible to the human eye. Using "deep learning," a form of artificial intelligence whose algorithms form a network that can make its own decisions, data scientists on Asner's team can identify organisms in the hyperspectral images and whether they are alive, dead or under significant stress.

Imaging spectroscopy is deeply connected to knowing whether or not a species will bleach, before they bleach.

One of the challenges inherent in working with such precise instruments is ensuring that the data stream each one produces is aligned with the others; failure to do so would produce slightly off-kilter maps of varying resolution, rendering the endeavor effectively useless. So physicists on the team retrace the location of individual photons as they enter the aircraft. Atomic clocks then measure the amount of time that passes between the photon entering the plane and hitting each instrument. Their precise location is understood through a unique technology, called an inertial motion unit, that is so sensitive and advanced Asner must continually report its location to the U.S. State Department as part of its program to mitigate technology loss from the U.S. Knowing the time each photon hits each instrument, and where the instrument is in space, allows the scientists to register all the data in a single map.

"CAO3 is really down in the weeds of actually looking for weeds – invasive species – as well as individual organisms of live coral," says Asner, who noted the system is capable of mapping to a depth of 15 meters (50 feet).

"Their approach to combine multiple sensors in a simultaneous collection is very powerful and has a lot of potential," says Tim Battista, a biological oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who has conducted reef mapping using Lidar.

Thomas Painter is principal investigator of NASA's Airborne Snow Observatory, which determines the water content of snowpack in the Western U.S. "The Carnegie Airborne Observatory is the pathfinder for understanding ecosystems, between its cutting-edge spectrometer combined with scanning Lidar and its extensive data-processing chain and team," he says.

Collecting the images from the sky is only part of Asner's coral-mapping effort. His scientists also take the hyperspectral cameras underwater to collect the spectral signatures of known coral species. The airborne observatory's images are then matched to these libraries using deep learning techniques – essentially the same approach Google Photos uses for face recognition.

Researchers use spectral mapping abilities of CAO3 to analyze coral reefs Photo: Carnegie Airborne Observatory

Working with the Hawaii Institute for Marine Biology, where researchers are decoding the genetic expression that occurs among corals which are susceptible to bleaching, the CAO can determine in advance whether or not a species viewed in a particular location will bleach, according to Asner. "We know imaging spectroscopy is deeply connected to whether or not a species will bleach, before they bleach," he says.

The CAO's work in the Caribbean is the middle layer of a three-step process scientists at the Nature Conservancy are undertaking to create scalable solutions for reef monitoring and protection. Monitoring images from Planet, a company that provides global satellite imagery that's updated everywhere almost daily, the group can see where reefs are and detect change at a rough resolution. CAO then zooms in to show coral genera, bathymetric composition and coral stress based on chemical signatures visible in the spectroscopy. Scuba divers and drone operators then validate what CAO has picked up, which also helps Asner's data scientists train their algorithms to more accurately assess habitats.

The Nature Conservancy is now working with the government of the Dominican Republic, conservation groups and private-sector partners in the tourism industry to develop a management plan for a new marine protected area recently established by the government.

This type of effort is hugely necessary in the Caribbean.

"It's hard to design a good marine spatial plan without knowing where the reefs are and what condition they're in," says Joe Pollock, a marine biologist and the Nature Conservancy's coral strategy director in the Caribbean. He says he is confident that the CAO's maps and his organization's reports that will include them won't be "just dropped on someone's desk and forgotten about. This is something there's a real thirst for."

Once CAO identifies degraded areas and prime spots for restoration, the Nature Conservancy will build on existing work with Secore, a nonprofit with experts specializing in facilitating sexual reproduction of coals, and the Mote Marine Lab, which has developed microfragmentation techniques that can accelerate the growth of coral polyps, to restore reefs in the newly mapped areas for shore protection, fisheries production and tourism. Mote has discovered that by breaking a colony into small pieces, they grow faster than they would apart, and fragments from the same parent will re-fuse if placed beside one another. "You can now shortcut the long amount of time it normally takes corals to become sexually active," Pollock says.

"This type of effort is hugely necessary in the Caribbean," says Battista. "While extensive work has been done in the U.S. Caribbean, reefs in the Dominican Republic are largely unmapped so it's particularly needed."

This article was originally published on Oceans Deeply.

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"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

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