It’s a big month for coral reef research in Hawaii.
About 2,500 people are expected to attend the International Coral Reef Symposium June 19-24 at the Hawaii Convention Center. It will mark the first time the Aloha State has hosted the quadrennial event, and only the third time it’s been held in the United States.
And on Tuesday, researchers will launch a state-of-the-art project to survey more than reefs than ever before in an area stretching from Hawaii to Australia.
The beginning of that project is bound to be a hot topic at the symposium, which will focus on “the latest scientific information on solutions to the challenges of local and global stressors including overfishing, poor land-use practices and global climate change, and a framework for moving from science to policy, management and implementation,” said Robert Richmond, research professor and director of Kewalo Marine Laboratory, University of Hawaii Manoa.
“This is an opportunity to raise critical awareness in Hawaii to the plight of our reefs and those who depend on them, and showcase Hawaii’s expertise and responses to the challenge of coral reef sustainability,” Richmond said.
Hawaii’s coral reefs face a host of problems, from unprecedented coral bleaching and ocean acidification to nearshore pollution caused by runoff.
Hawaii offers great examples of both coral reef losses due to human activities — for example, overfishing and sedimentation — and proactive sustainability activities through the state Division of Aquatic Resources and community groups such as Malama Maunalua, the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council and the fish pond huis, Richmond said.
“We expect specific place-based actions to stem from this meeting, and the development of relationships to move from outputs to outcomes,” he said. “A number of solutions that cut across disciplines are expected.”
The event will include nearly 90 sessions with topics ranging from coral bleaching and fish ecology to the latest technology in studying reefs, plus evening public events.
“Hawaii is an internationally recognized center for coral reef research based at the various UH campuses and a place with a rich history of traditional ecological knowledge and culturally based sustainability practices,” Richmond said. “The Hawaiian creation chant, the Kumulipo, recognizes the coral polyp as the first and oldest living ancestor.”
One symposium attendee will be ocean scientist Eric Hochberg, head of the NASA-backed Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory project that is aiming to revolutionize how researchers measure coral reefs.
Surveying reefs isn’t easy using the traditional method of taking underwater measurements. They’re patchy, widespread and at different heights of the ocean floor, Hochberg said Thursday during a tour at the University of Hawaii Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology on Coconut Island in Kaneohe Bay.
The project is set to start Tuesday when a light-scanning imaging device will be flown 28,000 feet above the ocean. Each pixel alone captured from the instrument will represent a 25-square-foot area.
The device, known as the Portable Remote Imaging SpectroMeter, was created with the help of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. It scans the light reflected from the airplane to the ocean floor and analyzes color to differentiate between corals, algae, sand and rocks.
Hochberg, an associate scientist at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, will be joined by his “dream team” of hand-picked scientists to travel over the next year throughout the Hawaiian Islands, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Mariana Islands and Palau in Micronesia.
Surveying coral reefs on a larger scale could change the way we look at reefs, he said.
“I don’t know what we’re going to find,” Hochberg said. “We may find patterns that people don’t expect and don’t want to hear. It’s possible, because we’re looking at reefs differently than anyone ever does.”
The airborne reef-scanning system will be a first for the science community, but Hochberg has had his sights set on the project for about 20 years. NASA had taken an interest in his project early on, but Hochberg’s challenge was getting the agency to make it a fiscal priority.
Coral reefs are more of a hot topic now than when Hochberg first proposed his project. As the group completes their research, he said all data will be available for free on the project’s website.
The project will survey 3 to 4 percent of the Earth’s coral reef surface.
“This (technology) is sort of a precursor,” Hochberg said. “And it’s going to be obvious that if you want to continue this, if you want to study more reefs … you better put a satellite in space.”
Using similar technology, a satellite could study forests or even volcanoes, Hochberg said. A satellite would enable scientists to track long-term change and patterns in ecosystems with more accuracy.
While Hochberg’s research is designed to look at the big picture, his team will rely on small-scale reef studies to make sense of the data captured in the sky.
That’s why the UH Ph.D. graduate in oceanography, returned to Kaneohe Bay to kick off his airborne research.
“There’s a lot about reefs that we don’t know. And there’s a lot of great research that goes on, especially places like here,” Hochberg said. “At the same time, the reef is huge, it’s an ecosystem. It’s like studying the genetics of a tree and talking about a forest.”
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