Scientists Complete the First Map of the World’s Coral Reefs

Nearly 100,000 square miles of the organism have been charted in high detail to create a tool for conservationists to help save them

A scuba diver is seen holding a camera in in Far Northern Great Barrier Reef on Ashmore Bank
Environmental scientist Alexandra Ordoñez Alvarez from the University of Queensland collects data in Far Northern Great Barrier Reef on Ashmore Bank. Courtesy of Arizona State University

Scientists have completed the world's first detailed map of Earth's coral reefs, creating a valuable resource for monitoring and conserving an ecosystem facing the threat of destruction by human-driven climate change.

The Allen Coral Atlas combines roughly two million satellite images with local reference data to create high-resolution maps of coral reefs around the world, reports Caleb Jones of the Associated Press.

Overall, nearly 98,000 square miles of coral reefs in water up to 50 feet deep were mapped, reports Carolyn Cowan of Mongabay. Data on other aspects of the seafloor and ocean that interact with coral reefs is also collected in the atlas, including wave turbidity and the presence of sand or rocks. Roughly three quarters of the world's coral reefs had never before been mapped to this level of detail, the AP reports.

The researchers behind the map hope that it will help governments around the world better understand and protect increasingly threatened coral reefs.

“There are countries, organizations and government agencies in the world that don’t have a map of their reefs […] so these maps will help people by basically giving a baseline to better assess where action is needed,” says marine scientist Chris Roelfsema, who led the mapping process for the Allen Coral Atlas, to Mongabay. “We can better make plans for marine protected areas, or we can extrapolate fish biomass or look at carbon stocks and all those kinds of things that up until now were not possible.”

The atlas is named after Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft who funded the partnership behind the project, which involved more than 450 research teams around the world, per Mongabay.

Only about one percent of the Earth's ocean bed is covered by coral reefs, but more than one quarter of the ocean's wildlife call these ecosystems home. After surviving and growing for thousands of years, climate change has put increasing pressure on these habitats. Rising water temperatures and acidifying oceans cause stress for the microorganisms that build and live in these reefs. More than half of some reefs, such as Australia's Great Barrier Reef, have already been lost.

Among other potential uses the atlas could help scientists identify coral species that are more resistant to heat waves that could be used for restoring damaged reefs, Mongabay reports. Already, conservation projects in more than 30 countries are making using of the atlas' data to guide their efforts.

“The true value of the work will come when coral conservationists are able to better protect coral reefs based on the high-resolution maps and monitoring system,” ecologist Greg Asner, who served as managing director of the Allen Coral Atlas, says in a statement. “We must double down and use this tool as we work to save coral reefs from the impacts of our climate crisis and other threats.

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