JURASSIC PARK EFFECT

Despite global warming, some reefs are flourishing, and you can see it in 3D

Maybe it’s not the end of the world for corals after all.

That’s one of the surprising findings of a new project called the 100 Island Challenge, led by two scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

Jennifer Smith, Stuart Sandin and their team from Scripps are studying the changes taking place on 100 coral reef systems around the world. What they have found offers a surprising, and hopeful, glimpse of the current state of coral reefs.

“We’ve seen evidence of health pretty much everywhere,” says Sandin. “This isn’t saying that every reef is thriving, and every reef has stayed immune to climate change. But what we’re seeing is that after a reef dies, organisms grow.” Call it the Jurassic Park effect: life finds a way.

While they acknowledge that some reef systems like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia have suffered tremendously from recent warming events, other reefs seem to be thriving.

“We were inspired by some observations that we had about seeing coral reefs in far flung places that showed signs of resilience, that showed bounty, that showed wonder,” says Sandin. “And these observations that we had were somewhat in contrast to some of the news reports of doom and gloom, of loss.”

If you don’t believe it, take a look at the video above, which the team has assembled as part of the 100 Island Challenge. In vivid 3D, corals bulge with life, exhibiting vibrant hues that stand in stark contradiction to the pale skeletons left behind after coral bleaching events that have ravaged other reefs.

The videos themselves are an astonishing and important part of the project. Although the corals look computer generated, the videos represent actual reef systems shot with off the shelf DSLR cameras. They are assembled from as many as 4000 photographs, shot by divers who swim lawnmower patterns over the reef, snapping a picture every second. The images are then run through a software process called photogrammetry, which stitches the images together into a 3-dimensional whole, allowing the viewer to glide across the reef with resolution down to one centimeter.

Northern Marianas Islands, May 2014
A diver uses a camera to capture images of coral in the Northern Marianas Islands.

The team has shot over 70 reefs so far, in places like Hawaii, the Marianas, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Tonga, and French Polynesia. This year, they will visit the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Kiribati and several islands across the Caribbean.

They plan to return to each one after 2-3 years to repeat the process. The idea is to gain a fine-grained understanding of the changes that are taking place over time on the reefs, and to do so without harming the coral. It is the most detailed study of its kind on the planet, and it’s providing data the likes of which has never been collected before.

“Now we’re able to do a single dive on a reef, capture thousands of images, bring them back home, recreate that reef in the lab and then spend hundreds of hours extracting data out of that one dive, whereas normally that would have taken hundreds of hours underwater to collect the same data,” says Smith.

Recent Expedition to French Polynesia
Recent Expedition to French Polynesia (Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

Although they have not yet determined how the reefs are changing over time, perhaps the most surprising results they have seen reveal how well many reef systems are doing, even in places facing human impact. Jamaica, for example, has long been held out as a case study for coral loss. But the team visited last year and came away surprised.

“You can see these little colonies of pretty much every species of Caribbean coral alive, growing slowly,” says Sandin.

The team is already taking the study into other interactive realms, with plans to create virtual reality tours of the reefs, adding sound and expanding into 4D by adding the dimension of time into the experience. They believe that the images will become a valuable baseline for understanding the changes, both good and bad, that are taking place on the planet.

“These models are essentially a living library of reefs that will essentially be an opportunity to take a time machine into the past 20 years from now,” says Sandin.

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