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AI uses deep learning to find heat-resistant coral reefs

Published: 24th September, 2018 at 00:00
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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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Authors

Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Science Focus Podcast.

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