Speeding up data collection to help save the Great Barrier Reef

Researchers hope by ramping up data collection it could help save what is left of the reef.

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Image: Dell Technologies

The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef ecosystem and one of the seven natural wonders of the world. However, it is under great threat.

A recent study by the ARC Centre of Excellence Coral Reef Studies revealed that the Great Barrier Reef has lost half its coral in the past three decades to mass bleaching events caused by rising water temperatures.

Reef corals have an annual reproduction event every November and December that has the potential to see healthy coral spread their larvae, with the help of the ocean's current, to parts of the reef that have been affected by bleaching.

The challenges faced by researchers are figuring out how to identify and map these healthy reefs, how to evaluate the way reefs can be protected, and how to monitor the dangers faced by corals. Due to the large geographical range of the Great Barrier Reef -- roughly the same size of Italy -- researchers have only collected data regularly from approximately 5-10% of the reef.

In a bid to ramp up data collection, conservation organisation Citizens of the Greater Barrier Reef has launched the Great Reef Census project.

The project aims to bring together stakeholders across tourism, including visitors and divers, science, research, and business to assist and scale data collection from across the reef by capturing images of the reef.

Must read: How AI and drones are trying to save the Great Barrier Reef (TechRepublic)

The organisation has partnered with Dell Technologies and Intel to ensure the data collected by these stakeholders can be uploaded and transferred in real time to the marine research team at the University of Queensland.

According to Dell, it has built an embedded, ruggedised device that can be installed on vessels used by tour operators or researchers. These devices, Dell said, are underpinned by Intel Atom and designed to run on its own local Wi-Fi network so stakeholders can connect to a purpose-built portal to upload their captured images.

A pilot program of the census using the technology was carried out in 2019. Following the success of the pilot, Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef scaled up the project in October to survey 100 priority reefs over 11 weeks.

"This will give us the opportunity to trial new technology in-water, test the data upload and analysis platform, as well as mobilise a diverse range of vessels to priority reef sites … our intention is to use the learnings from the 2020 census of 100 priority reefs as the launch vehicle for an even bigger Great Reef Census in 2021," Citizens of the Great Barrier stated.

Data and insights captured through the project will be open-sourced and made available to classrooms and researchers, the organisation added.

The Great Reef Census project is being delivered in partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the University of Queensland, and the Australian Institute of Marine Science, with support from James Cook University. The project is funded by the partnership between the Australian government's Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, the Prior Family Foundation, and the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre.

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