Value of a global mosaic of the world's corals

April 4, 2019Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres

What is the value of a global mosaic of the world’s corals? Why is it so special and fantastic? 

We have photographed every inch of the Moon's surface. We even have done so under multiple lighting situations, allowing for direct comparisons of the same landscape at different lunar phases. Such an effort allows us to land an object on the surface of the Moon within a few feet of target. We don't have the same for the world's coral reefs.  

Until now. 

The Allen Coral Atlas global photomosaic is a composite photograph of the world's coral reefs produced from satellite-based images. For the first time, we'll be able to see the features of coral reefs, and we'll be able to compare coral reefs within a region and between different regions. Because coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean, are different from the ones in the Indian Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean.  

Each coral reef has a unique visual fingerprint. If I want to compare this coral reef with another, to better understand how it works, how healthy or degraded it is, then, I need a standard method of comparisons, so any differences I see I know they are real, and not an artifact of the method. This is what the Global photomosaic allows me to do. And it is revolutionary in the sense the scientific and management community did not have access to such tool until now. 

Sharing exciting news – the Allen Coral Atlas at Reef Futures

I presented the Allen Coral Atlas at the Reef Futures Conference in Key Largo, Florida, December 2018. This was the first international conference on coral reef restoration. The audience is a mixture of scientists, managers, practitioners, governments, NGOs, academia. This is a diverse and complex audience, with different needs, so it is rare to present a new technique or new product to them and have it widely accepted.  

The workshop had a 50 seat capacity. Prior to the conference, it was expanded to 80 seats due to the interest it had generated. At the start of the workshop, we borrowed chairs from other locations because the head count had reached close to 100 and the back of the room had about 10 people standing up. This was the workshop with the largest audience in the conference. 

The Eureka moment 

At the start of the workshop, I had a map of Heron Island in current mapping conditions. The coral reef was painted as a big blob of blue. 


The next slide showed the same location mapped with the Allen Coral Atlas (based on photographs from satellites and in water field verification) where you can see that the coral reef was just a thin ribbon around the island, and the rest of the area was a mix of sand, seagrass, rubble, etc. all the features around and inside a coral reef. 


This before/after comparison was the Eureka moment for the audience. You could hear people gasp in surprise, followed by a few words of profanity in several languages. Then silence, as people were deep in concentration looking at the map, digesting all the information, smiling, shaking their heads, all with big eyes, not blinking. "Imagine the possibilities" I said. There was a resounding "yes!" from the audience. It was such a powerful moment. 

Before Allen Coral Atlas 
With Allen Coral Atlas 


The aftermath 

After I presented the workshop and answered all the technical questions, I was packing my computer to leave the stand ready for the next session speaker. There were people waiting in a long line, and I thought they had more questions about the technical details of the Atlas. But my greatest surprise was they had lined up to say thank you. In all the years of presenting at scientific conferences, not once anybody has thanked me for what I presented. Here, people were waiting in line to tell me very similar messages that usually went like: "thank you for what you and your team are doing. With the Atlas, I'll be able to save time, because I can see where things are.... plan my work dives better.... convince my government that we need to take action... start planning a new marine protected area.... be more strategic on where I can do restoration.... all followed by a plea: map my coral reef next.  


Dr. Sarah Frias-Torres is the Coral Reef Conservation and Restoration Specialist at Vulcan Inc. and a Research Collaborator for the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce, Florida. She studies how coral reefs and marine megafauna can recover from overfishing and survive global climate change. Dr Frias-Torres has led large-scale coral reef restoration projects in the Seychelles, and coral reef, mangrove and megafish conservation projects in Florida and the Caribbean Sea. She is a Fulbright Fellow, a former Schmidt Ocean Institute Research Fellow, and a U.S. National Academy of Sciences Postdoc Fellow. Prior to Vulcan, Dr. Frias-Torres worked at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)-Kennedy Space Center, and was a consultant for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Dr Frias-Torres is committed to science communication and outreach using art, social media, documentary filmmaking and broadcast media (TV, radio).