Climate change is killing coral – can AI help protect reefs?

Time is running out to save the world’s coral reefs, so conservationists are turning to every tool possible to protect disappearing reefs – including AI.

In Florida, the race is on to restore reefs by ‘planting’ human-grown corals. It’s an uphill battle, as rising ocean temperatures put pressure on already struggling reefs. Tracking progress is essential, but tedious work.

In the past, coral conservationists had to physically swim to reefs to take notes on individual corals they had planted using a pencil and waxy, waterproof paper. “It can’t grow with the scale of your restoration efforts. And you’ll end up spending more time monitoring coral restoration than you will actually do doing coral restoration,” says Alexander Neufeld, scientific program manager at the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF).

In the past, coral conservationists had to physically swim to reefs to take notes on the individual corals they planted using a pencil and waxy, waterproof paper.

Not only is that a time-consuming strategy, but if you simply manually take notes on each individual coral, you risk missing the bigger picture: the health of the reef as a whole. “We don’t necessarily focus on the individuals. We focus on populations, we focus on communities – these broader ecological groups of organisms that we’re trying to restore,” says Neufeld.

That’s where AI can give conservationists an edge, giving them more precious time to save corals while providing new insights into how to make the biggest impact. It’s the goal of a new tool called CeruleanAI, developed by the Florida-based nonprofit Coral Restoration Foundation. The tool uses AI to analyze 3D maps of reefs, giving researchers a new perspective for monitoring restoration efforts in a warming world.

In Florida, pollution, overfishing, ship damage and disease have already decimated the reefs. Since the 1970s, healthy coral cover in the region has declined by 90 percent. To make matters worse, climate change is also killing corals. When the water gets too hot, corals expel the algae that give them their color, a phenomenon called bleaching. If the problem continues, the corals, which are animals, will die. That’s what happened in the summer of 2023, when water temperatures warm enough to sit in a hot tub led to an unprecedented coral bleaching event. CRF lost virtually all the young corals they had planted at some reef sites.

Neufeld and the CRF team are doing everything they can to make up for lost ground. To replenish reefs, conservationists can grow new individual corals on land. They can do this by artificially creating the mood in which they can reproduce sexually, or by cloning themselves by breaking apart coral colonies so that each fragment grows into a new colony. Either way, the baby corals should eventually be ‘planted’ in the sea, where the reefs they create support life for thousands of other species.

After planting the young corals, CRF regularly returns to see how they are doing. In recent years, CRF has moved from taking notes by hand to taking photos with GoPros. Back on shore, they use software to stitch those images together into 3D photo mosaics (which you can see in The edge‘s recent coral restoration video). Neufeld got the idea from his experiences in a university program that used 3D modeling to document shipwrecks and underwater archaeological artifacts.

Applied to coral recovery, the photo mosaics help CRF see how well the reef is recovering with the help of the corals they have planted. For example, elkhorn is considered a “branching” coral that forms dense thickets that become important habitats for other creatures. Success is not just about the survival of individually planted corals; it’s also how they grow and merge to cover the sea floor.

To make the biggest impact, CRF has taken its land-based techniques one step further. They built a tool that uses AI to collect data from the images they collected. “Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of sitting in front of a computer for hours and manually sketching all these corals, you just let AI scan an image and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a moose horn? [coral] right there’?” says Neufeld.

Now, with the click of a button, they can find out what types of coral – such as elkhorn – are in the reef, where they are in the reef and how much they have grown since CRF’s last visit. It also helps them figure out how to give the corals the best chance of survival and frees up conservationists to spend more time in the water. “We can more quickly implement changes that need to be made based on what we see in the data,” Neufeld says.

Soon, conservationists around the world will be able to use the same tools that CRF developed. The U.S. has poured millions of dollars in federal funds into restoring Florida’s reefs, working with academic and nonprofit organizations, including CRF. Many restoration efforts around the world do not have access to the same resources. CRF plans to launch CeruleanAI early next year, which it says it will offer to other conservation groups on a gradual scale or for free, depending on how much need they have.

One thing to keep in mind is that, as useful as this tool can be, the explosion of AI comes with its own carbon footprint. It takes a lot of energy to train AI models, leading some advocates to worry about whether greenhouse gas emissions from all that computing could make it harder to fight climate change. It’s too early to say exactly what the overall toll on the environment will be, so researchers say it’s important at this point to think carefully about how AI is used – whether it justifies the potential environmental risks.

In this case, at least AI is helping to mitigate the effects of climate change on the world’s oceans – even though there is still a lot of work to be done to prevent ocean heat waves from getting much worse due to runaway beaten greenhouse gas pollution.

After historic heat hit the Florida Keys this year, CRF’s monitoring efforts revealed massive losses at some reefs. “We saw that everything had faded, everything had died, and that unfortunately means that this year was kind of a wash for that part of the world. [the reef],” says Neufeld. “But again, that doesn’t mean we’ve lost everything everywhere. It doesn’t mean that what we did was wrong in any sense. It just means that we have work ahead of us in the future.”

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