Landlocked Austin, Texas might seem like an unlikely place to attract a group of coral reef enthusiasts, but when the SXSW Interactive conference comes to town, all bets are off.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego led its first ever panel at the 2018 event, sparking a lively discussion about innovative technology being used to study coral reefs, one of the planet’s most important—and threatened—ecosystems.
SXSW is an annual conference that explores what’s next in the worlds of technology, film, culture, and music, with the interactive track drawing more than 70,000 attendees and 2,000 panels.
A diverse crowd packed into the Westin Austin Downtown on March 10 to attend the coral tech panel, titled “Saving Coral Reefs One Pixel at a Time.” Panelists were Scripps coral reef ecologist Jennifer Smith and outreach manager Zackery Rago of the production company Exposure Labs and featured in the documentary Chasing Coral, with science journalist JoAnna Klein of the New York Times serving as moderator.
The panel covered a broad range of topics including the biology and ecology of corals, the evolution of imagery-based approaches in coral reef research, and the ways in which technology such as virtual reality can be used to educate and inspire communities to protect coral reefs.
“Technology is transforming our ability to learn from the marine environment,” said Smith, one of the leaders of the 100 Island Challenge, a collaborative, Scripps-based research initiative that aims to collect coral reef data from 100 islands across the globe. “It's really transformed our ability to scale what we do underwater and provide this permanent record, which is invaluable.”
Smith discussed novel technology developed at Scripps and UC San Diego that creates high-resolution photo mosaics and 3D maps of coral reefs by taking thousands of pictures and stitching them together using a customized computer program.
Other high-tech tools used by Smith and the 100 Island Challenge team include 360-degree cameras, autonomous sensors, robotics, and a diver-operated underwater microscope, designed and built by Scripps scientist Jules Jaffe, to study millimeter-scale processes as they naturally occur on the seafloor.
Despite recent news about corals bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef and other areas around the world, Smith and Rago said there is still a reason to be hopeful. They note climate change is a huge problem and some reefs have died due to warming ocean conditions and other factors, but others have survived and even recovered from bleaching events.
Smith and Rago both see the potential for technology to help communicate science to the public and to help promote stewardship of the oceans.
“Tech is literally giving the reef a voice,” said Rago. “We're getting incredible data, we're getting incredible science and all these opportunities for novel research coming out of it, but, it's also totally applicable to share back to the public in really powerful ways.”
For instance, Rago said that by using VR imagery, a student in Boulder, Colo. who has never stepped foot in the ocean can go on a virtual dive and experience a place they otherwise might never see in their lifetime.
According to Rago, VR has the ability to show communities around the world why they should care about protecting coral reefs, which are sometimes located in their own backyard.
“If you can show them what they have or what those places are like, you can cultivate that inspiration to care about it,” said Rago.
Smith discussed the importance of reaching out to local communities and teaching them about the value of coral reefs. In addition to their natural beauty, coral reefs are incredibly important to humans for subsistence, fisheries, tourism, and for generating revenue in many island nations, she said.
While global problems like ocean acidification and climate change can seem daunting, Smith said communities can still make a difference to protect their local reefs by managing stressors such as overfishing, pollution, and agricultural runoff, which can cause harmful algae to grow on the reefs and lead to bleaching.
"By managing these local stressors, we can actually help our reefs stay healthy and help them to be able to weather storms like thermal bleaching events in the future,” said Smith.
After admitting that she used to not want to cover coral reef research because she thought it was “the same sad story all over again,” Klein said recent advances in technology have made it possible for scientists and innovators to spark change, and this gives her hope.
“It connects you. It lets you see an otherwise invisible world, living and changing. And one day, it might be easy enough for you yourself to use,” said Klein. “As it turns out, the story really isn't so sad.”
– Brittany Hook