In the deep end
Scientific expeditions in the Great Barrier Reef may help us understand the effects of global warming on our marine life. Daniel Van Boom reports.
A set of scientific expeditions set to kick off in the Great Barrier Reef in September mark the next big step for marine biology.
The Caitlin Seaview Survey will be the first in a series of investigations about how underwater ecosystems will respond to climate change.
“[The survey will be] using an underwater vehicle that gets 360 degree vision as it goes along, and most importantly the data is geo-referenced,” said Dr. Robin Beaman, a research fellow at James Cook University.
“Long term studies aren’t new, but time stamping and geo-referencing are the next phase, the next way of studying underwater ecosystems.”
Geo-referencing, which is the recording of the locations where data is collected, allows scientists to “go to the same precise spot through time and take images of exactly the same parts of the reef.”
“This has always been an obstacle in getting time series information, which is information on the same exact place over a period of time,” said Beaman.
The survey will investigate shallow water reef systems, which are important to places like the Great Barrier Reef, and explore places that are rarely visited by science, such as the deep-water reef systems.
The survey will also look at mobile fauna, such as sharks, turtles and manta rays, that is important to the biology of the reef.
Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, the survey’s head scientist and director of the Global Change Institute of Science at the University of Queensland, highlighted the importance of the expedition, and the significance of the 360 degree camera.
“This is going to provide crucial information on the structure of the reef, which forms a very important baseline which we have to have if we’re going to understand climate change and its effects on reef systems,” he said.
The 360 degree panoramic camera will also serve another purpose – using footage shot by the cameras as well as satellite tracking tags on some of the larger fauna through Google Earth, we’ll be able to watch the Great Barrier Reef come to life almost in real time.
Dr. Beaman is optimistic about the connection to Google Earth.
“Because Google Earth is so widely used it makes sense to try and make these data sets as accessible as possible, if not you get lots of data sitting on a scientists computer that no one can see,” he said.
“By getting it to Google Earth, it allows more people to look at data set which is really key to science, it brings different eyes to data, different people will notice different things. So while it’s nice to be able to look at the reef online, the real benefit is the crowd sourcing.”
Dr Ross Hill, an environmental and marine science lecturer at UNSW, said: “It’s a great way to bring awareness on how coral reefs function and also the threats to them, including climate change.”
He’s also interested in how connecting findings with Google Earth could work in other ecosystems.
“This type of survey could work anywhere where you can take a camera, but especially well in places where people can’t access easily, places like Antarctica and the Amazon,” he said.
While the survey will collect geo-referenced data to provide a snapshot on the reef at the present time, its ultimate goal is to examine the effect of climate change in underwater ecosystems.
Hoegh-Guldberg said: “When it comes to climate change we know about 100 times more about how life on the land will respond than life in the sea, and this is really one of the core contributions of this project.”
“It will begin to fill in a series of important gaps in how systems are likely to respond to climate change. The survey will begin to reveal the Great Barrier Reef down to depths of 100 metres or more, and this really is the first of these integrated snap shots that are so important for understanding climate change in this enormous reef system,” he said.
“It’s important to be able to document and geo-reference survey findings and do them repeatedly, frequently and over a long period of time, which is what’s clever about this survey. Only when you start comparing data sets through time can you understand change – each survey is a snapshot, and only by constantly taking and comparing these snapshots can we get a good understanding on long term effects of global warming and climate change,” he said.
“Our memories are so fallible, and it’s so important to study exactly the same place even if you’re a few metres away from where you were the first time, the data won’t be as valuable…which is why geo-referencing is so exciting for scientists.”