New Tech Helps Belize Reef Experts See Big Picture

Ted Smalley Bowen
for National Geographic News
February 10, 2003

View the Belize Photo Gallery: Go>>

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.

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