Making impactful, visual indicators of our changing climate isn’t an easy task. Climate change is a gradual process, so it’s difficult to visibly show people what’s happening. Our oceans are changing, but we don’t notice the centimeter waters have risen or the amount they’re acidifying. But coral bleaching and reef decline are capturable: There are stark visual differences between thriving coral reefs and ones that have bleached as a result of warming oceans.
Underwater Earth’s XL Catlin Seaview Survey is making stunning panoramic images of coral reefs. Think of it as the oceanic version of Google Street View. With hundreds of thousands of photos taken already, the survey is globally documenting reef health and making the data it’s collecting along the way widely available to the public. Corals are declining one to two percent each year, so photographing this loss could help the world see what’s at stake.
Founded in 2010 by a group of former advertisers, Underwater Earth’s mission is to increase ocean literacy by taking captivating images of the world’s reefs. “Our goal was to collect ocean imagery to engage people in ways there weren’t possible before,” says Richard Vevers, Executive Director of the XL Catlin Seaview Survey and CEO of Underwater Earth.
People pause when they see these images–they understand that a white reef looks empty. Photos of ghostly white coral skeletons in American Samoa captured public attention earlier this year. The survey recorded a healthy reef there in December 2014 and then came back a few months later to document an extensively bleached one.
“Oceans are like a veneer that provides us with life on earth. It’s oxygen, food, and weather–that’s why people need to understand the implications of ocean change,” says Vevers. Up to 80 percent of carbon dioxide could be absorbed by oceans, so they really are the focal point of climate change.
By working with Google, the largest online communicator, the photos are now the most viewed underwater images in history. Some have been viewed by millions of people after being linked to Google’s homepage. The survey has taken over 750,000 images in 26 countries, but Google hosts a smaller curation of the panoramas on Oceans Street View.
“Google provides a platform for organizations like Underwater Earth, NOAA and Mission Blue, who know the stories and issues best, to use our technology to tell their story,” says Jenifer Austin, manager of Google’s Ocean Program.
The survey is funded by the specialty insurance group XL Catlin. It’s no surprise that insurance companies are paying close attention to the effects of climate change given the economic costs of more frequent and intense natural disasters.
To create each panoramic image, divers take a photo every two meters and can cover about 6 kilometers each day. Three images are taken simultaneously to get the 360 degree panoramic photos all while recording metadata like temperature, time, depth, and coordinates. Once the data is processed over the course of a few weeks, it can be uploaded to the Underwater Earth website using the Google Business photography program.
They’re taking more than just pretty pictures, though. A technology similar to facial recognition systems that was developed by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography can assess the health of corals in each image. Without that technology, it could take a person months to go through as many images and it would be less precise than the 90 percent accuracy the recognition system has. What’s more is that all of the data collected about reef conditions is publicly available online, so scientists can use it anytime.
Since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coral Reef Watch program released its predictive bleaching tools this year, the survey has the ability to photograph a reef before and then after a major bleaching event. Coral Reef Watch sounds the alarm with its predictive maps up to months in advance and the survey goes in to take a firsthand look at the bleaching. Field scientists can then layer data about local conditions on these images to share information about what’s happening to the reef.
Closely watching these bleached reefs has scientific value too. By documenting resilient reefs with high recovery rates, scientists can show that reefs have a better chance of survival when human stressors are limited. Local managers can then use the images and data analysis to gain support for marine conservation.
“Better management and marine policy allows us to buy enough time for reefs to potentially repopulate and adapt. That’s the real reason we need measures in place to control local conditions,” says Vevers. “If we continue business as usual, we’ll lose most corals by 2050.”
What’s next for the CSS? For now they’re working on documenting all six coral reef regions in the world and then revisiting them every four to five years to see how they’re changing. If there’s a big storm, such as a major cyclone in the Great Barrier Barrier Reef, they’ll go assess the damage. Underwater robots might come somewhere down the line too.
Underwater Earth and Google are also working on more outreach. They’re setting up educational programs to take school children, media professionals, and stakeholders on virtual dives–places they might not otherwise see. The imagery is already being used in classrooms with Google Expeditions.
“The potential of this partnership is huge. That a small non-profit partner could leverage our mapping technology to reach a large global audience and millions of people is unparalleled,” says Austin.
It’s clear Underwater Earth is raising public awareness about coral bleaching and the importance of reefs to livelihoods. And, partnering with Google has certainly furthered the reach of the project and might help lead to future policy changes too. To gain support for marine conservation, world leaders must be able to see what’s at risk if we don’t limit human stressors. Underwater Earth is providing the visuals to do just that.