Impact Series

Paul Allen-backed effort completes groundbreaking atlas of Earth’s coral reefs to help conservation

Coral in the Ailinginae Atoll in the Marshall Islands. (Greg Asner Photo)

After four years of collaboration, an international team of researchers and institutions has produced the Allen Coral Atlas, the first global map of shallow coral reefs. The reefs are home to an estimated 25% of all marine life, but half have been lost due to bleaching triggered by heat waves. Conservation efforts are crucial to their survival.

The project was initiated by the late Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft and philanthropist who died in 2018.

Allen was passionate about ocean health and dove on coral reefs, witnessing their deterioration firsthand. His Seattle-based company Vulcan contributed $9 million to the atlas, plus staff time for project management, engineering and web development. Co-funders provided $2 million.

“We’re in a really important moment right now. We’re in the midst of a climate crisis, a biodiversity crisis, and a coral reef crisis. And governments now are working together to think about how we’re going to address these crises,” said Chuck Cooper, Vulcan’s managing director of government affairs. “Coral reefs are in the nexus of the climate-biodiversity crisis.”

An image from the Allen Coral Atlas showing coral bleaching in New Caledonia captured in May 2021. (Click to enlarge)

The Allen Coral Atlas was created through a partnership between Vulcan; Arizona State University; Planet, which operates the largest fleet of earth-imaging satellites; National Geographic Society; and the University of Queensland in Australia. Renowned marine biologist and coral expert Ruth Gates helped launch the effort; she coincidentally died weeks after Allen.

To build the atlas, Planet provided nearly 2 million satellite images, which ASU researchers adjusted to account for atmosphere and water distortion. The University of Queensland applied machine learning to the images and used additional data to create the maps. National Geographic worked with conservation groups on how to use the atlas.

Vulcan made connections with governments and intergovernmental agencies to understand what they needed in the tool, helped fine-tune the platform to meet those needs, and made sure that interested parties were aware of the atlas once completed. The project now has connections with all of the roughly 100 countries that have coral reefs within their borders.

With the atlas up and running, ASU will be the project manager and take the lead in adding new features. The platform will continually update the maps in order to see events like bleaching in close to real time and to monitor other changes in the ecosystems.

Features of the atlas include:

  • Maps that span nearly 100,000 square miles of shallow coral reefs
  • Information including outlines of marine protected areas, and details showing coral, seagrass, rocks, sand and other features
  • A bleaching monitoring system
  • Imagery to a depth of 15 meters into the water and a resolution of 3.7 meters

The atlas, which is free to the public, is already being used by countries around the globe. The Solomon and Fiji islands are using the tool for developing marine protected areas, while the Bahamas are using it to select the best areas for coral reef restoration where they “outplant” coral that has been grown in a nursery.

Michael Markovina, director of Wildlife Conservation Society’s Marine Program for Tanzania, conducts coral reef field research. (Michael Markovina Photo)

The bleaching tool, which was developed in Hawaii, can provide a warning that a reef is in danger due to a marine heat wave. The Hawaiian government and researchers have come up with protective actions that people can take during a bleaching event to remove what’s called secondary stress. That includes reducing use of the reef or fishing in the area.

“Additional stresses can spell the difference between surviving and not surviving among corals,” said Greg Asner, managing director of the Allen Coral Atlas and head of ASU’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation. Asner, who is based in Hawaii, spoke at a media event today announcing completion of the atlas.

The project can also play a key role in “30×30” efforts, an initiative to encourage countries to agree to protect 30% of marine and terrestrial areas by 2030. In October, nations will be considering 2030 biodiversity goals at the two-part UN biodiversity summit called Convention of the Parties 15 or COP15. COP15 will wrap up next spring. President Biden has committed to the 30×30 conservation target for the U.S. (The similarly named and better-known COP26 summit addresses climate change and begins in November.)

A geomorphic map of the Great Barrier Reef showing the seascape or structure of the ocean floor. The Allen Coral Atlas can display 12 geomorphic classes. (Click to enlarge)

The atlas will support other Allen-related projects to save coral reefs. In September of last year, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation joined the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, the German government and other co-founders to create the Global Fund for Coral Reefs. The effort is working to raise millions of dollars to fund coral conservation projects.

Time is of the essence in safeguarding these fragile marine ecosystems. Research suggests that all of the coral reefs could be lost by 2050.

“What we’ve learned through the Coral Atlas and through other projects is there is hope,” Cooper said.

“We’re all optimists that we can make a difference for coral reefs,” he said. “It’s going to take all of these different levers — the science, the technology, the data, the policy making, the resources — but bringing all of these things together, we think we can make a real difference in conserving coral reefs and restoring coral reefs.”

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