news image

Surveillance of our coral reefs could benefit oceans worldwide

2015-08-02 08:12:07

Armed with software akin to facial recognition programmes used by police departments and customs officers around the world, the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi is now better equipped to survey the UAE’s slowly diminishing coral reefs.

The EAD recently announced the development of two monitoring and evaluation stations in Abu Dhabi to help scientists better understand the reefs.

The 10 stations in operation serve as way points for scientists to analyse and study the emirate’s ecosystems, or as underwater labs from which to launch their biannual studies.

“We have monitoring stations from the east side of Abu Dhabi to the west, and we visit these stations twice a year to collect information on the status and health of the coral reef,” said Ibrahim Bugla, head of the marine assessment and monitoring sector in EAD.

Aside from collecting automated data from the stations, Mr Bugla and his team of scientists dive to these way points and photograph the coral.

The photos are then analysed and compared with earlier images of the same quadrant of coral.

“There’s been a little bit of an evolution in the software technology. Now there’s automated software that’s going to dramatically enhance our ability to analyse the images – it’s very similar to the technology used in facial recognition,” said Edwin Grandcourt, manager of marine assessment and conservation sector in EAD.

The programme, said Mr Grandcourt, will identify factors such as the species of coral, how much they have grown and other indicators.

Previously, this was an extremely a labour-intensive process of comparing photos from previous years to the most recent. The process, said Mr Bugla, was also subjective and therefore inaccurate.

“It’s easier now and more accurate, whereas before it depended on the person analysing the data. Different people see things differently and the reading would reflect that,” he said.

Temperature data is analysed – an important aspect as to the ability of coral reefs to withstand such high temperatures in the Arabian Gulf. Professor John Burt, head of the NYU Abu Dhabi Marine Biology Lab, studied the reefs in the UAE to determine the future of corals around the world.

As sea temperatures rise, the Gulf, with its high temperatures and salinity provides a precursor to what might occur elsewhere, said Prof Burt.

“The Arabian Gulf is the world’s hottest sea,” he said.

“Abu Dhabi reefs can provide incredible insight into how corals may adapt to increasing temperatures expected under climate change.”

Other experts at the NYUAD summit in February, Coral Reefs of Arabia, looked at introducing corals from the UAE and the Gulf to other diminishing reefs to make them more heat-resistant.

But the idea of an invasive species is controversial, said Mr Grandcourt, and needs more research.

The stations collect temperature data every hour and it is analysed at EAD labs twice a year.

Heat stress-induced loss of algae from coral can lead to coral bleaching, which destroys reefs, instances of which have previously taken place in the Gulf region in 1996 and 1998.