New Tech Helps Belize Reef Experts See Big Picture

Ted Smalley Bowen
for National Geographic News
February 10, 2003
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Stunning biodiversity combined with bellwether status for the health of the planet make the world's coral reefs major hubs of scientific activity. Throngs of specialists circulate through these sensitive aquatic environments, leaving reams of data in their wakes. Communication between research groups, and with the public at large, however, tends to be limited. Large-scale, multidisciplinary expeditions are hard to fund and coordinate, and the pace and scope of scientific publication caters to a small audience.

An expedition to the Belize barrier reef system last November made a trial run of methods of coordinating and popularizing fieldwork among diverse and far-flung groups. The excursion was sponsored by the United Nations Economic, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

One of the goals was to link researchers around the world by giving them a place to make their efforts and resources available, said Lon Addison, director of the University of California Berkeley's Center for Design Visualization and scientific commissioner of the UNESCO 30th anniversary virtual congress. "There are many researchers doing great work that don't know about their colleagues that are doing complementary work," he said.

Researchers used digital cameras, global positioning system (GPS) equipment, and various multimedia and satellite transmission technologies to gather and report physical data on the ecosystem. Expedition team members took to air, land, and sea to survey the conservation area, documenting palm tree blight, washed-up trash, and the state of the reefs.

The reef system is a more than 237,000-acre (96,000-hectare) patchwork of marine reserves, natural monuments, wildlife management areas, and national parks. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, the reef system includes coral reefs, islands, lagoons, and shoreline stretching from the Mexican border on its northern boundary to the southern coast of Belize.

Using Sensors to Monitor Environmental Health

UNESCO sponsored the Belize barrier reef expedition as part of a 30th anniversary program highlighting some of its 730-plus World Heritage sites, a designation given by the body to denote places of worldwide biological, historic, or cultural significance. Details were posted on the World Heritage Web site, which serves as a cross-discipline portal.

Specialists working at World Heritage sites typically range from archaeologists and historians to climatologists, marine biologists, and computer scientists. "Often those worlds don't interact," Addison said.

Similar portals, and less structured forms of Web collaboration, could anchor scientific research, extending the physical reach of teamwork and potentially bringing more expertise to bear on a given study.

Assuming a willingness to share, the volume of data capture and dissemination can be ratcheted-up with some fairly accessible tools.

Lugging a wide assortment of photographic equipment, the Belize expedition group also carried a small network of laptops, and sent dispatches to Web producers via a satellite uplink.

The Belize expedition demonstrated that it's possible to gather detailed data using equipment like 360-degree panoramic cameras synchronized with hydrophones and coordinated with GPS systems.

"Such a contraption could be useful to monitor the behavior of group spawning by grouper and other reef fishes that congregate at fixed spawning aggregation sites at predictable times of the year," said Mark Hixon, a zoology professor at Oregon State University.

The team also recorded underwater sound. "We can embed the sound positionally" in the panoramas, Addison said.

Newer, slightly more exotic technologies may also figure in studies of the area. Provided their deployment didn't harm the environment, sensors could be scattered widely to measure micro-currents, temperature, salinity, and other conditions, according to Addison.

"You could imagine putting a grid of a thousand sensors in a coral reef or the ocean floor that could be beaming back data wirelessly. You could track in very fine detail cooling and warming—the warming that causes the bleaching effect, for example," Addison said, referring to the harmful condition caused when coral reefs loose their symbiotic algae.

Similar sensors are used in office buildings as part of environmental control systems, and some researchers are already using micro-sensors to study corral reefs.

The digital image bank built up during November's excursion will be made available, with GPS coordinates for each shot, according to Addison. "In the future, 20 [to] 50 years from now, this may be [scientifically] useful, [if researchers keep it accessible] rather than putting it on a bookshelf and forgetting about it," he said.

Addison plans to return to Belize in May for a more extensive multi-disciplinary study.

Well-Trained Mind Still Trumps High-Tech Gear

The leap from low-tech to modest-tech can make a significant difference in the study of ecosystems, said James Thomas, a professor at Nova Southeastern Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, Florida.

"If you give somebody a rubber raft and a thermometer and tell them to row out into a lagoon every day and take the temperature, you're not doing a whole lot," he said. "But if you give them a video camera and monitoring tools, you can get more done."

Digital cameras, laptops, and satellite Web connections can speed the key work of taxonomy in the field, Thomas said. "One of the arguments of systemicists is that most of the species in coral reefs are unknown. It's more than fish and coral."

Nonetheless, even the latest and greatest technologies are just tools.

"Technology does not eliminate the need for old fashion hard work and bottom time if you want to learn about coral reefs," said Steven Miller, director of the National Undersea Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. "I have a lot of experience using video imaging on coral reefs, and nothing substitutes for having a trained, expert mind collecting data the old fashion way—with pencils and slates."

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Related Web site

Glovers Reef Marine Research Station

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