© the ocean agency/paul g allen philanthropies,

AI uses deep learning to find heat-resistant coral reefs

Thanks to 360-degree imaging and AI, scientists now know more about the state of our coral reefs.

In the western Pacific lies the Coral Triangle, stretching across an area of 6,470,000km² and encompassing Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands. While much of the Triangle has been experiencing its worst ever bleaching event, University of Queensland researchers have used artificial intelligence to discover that some of the reefs off Sulawesi seem largely resistant to ocean warming.

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The team used underwater scooters fitted with 360° cameras to photograph 3,851km² of reef, creating a total of 56,000 images. They then taught a deep-learning program to identify different corals and invertebrates in the images – once it had been shown around 500 pictures, it was able to process the rest autonomously. The analysis found that the reefs around Sulawesi haven’t declined significantly since 2014.

Coral bleaching
Corals get their colours from algae-like organisms called zooxanthellae, which provide food through photosynthesis. In periods of extreme heat, corals expel their zooxanthellae and turn white, which can lead to disease and starvation.

Can coral reefs recover from bleaching? © Getty Images

The study of these heat-resistant reefs has given researchers hope that some coral might survive the damaging effects of human-induced climate change, and could replenish adversely affected reefs if we manage to stabilise ocean temperatures in the future.

Experts agree that coral reef ecosystems worldwide could collapse as early as 2050 if carbon emissions continue at the current rate. This research project is part of the 50 Reefs initiative, focused on gathering and analysing data on the reef ecosystems that are most likely to survive until global warming is brought under control.

This is an extract from issue 327 of BBC Focus magazine.

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