Apr 04, 2017

Scientists at the University of Sydney use 3D modeling to track changes in coral reefs

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the ocean’s most incredible sights. Stretching over 2300 km and interlinking more than 900 reef islands located in the eastern part of Australia, the coral reef system is the world’s largest single structure made by living organisms. Selected as a World Heritage Site in 1981, it was included among the seven natural wonders of the world, in a list compiled by BBC.

All of that could change, however, because the Great Barrier Reef is under threat like never before. Recent studies [1,2,3] say that rising water temperatures [4], pollution-caused acidification [5] and more frequent storms [6] have caused coral bleaching, the loss of endosymbiotic algae from the coral, to be more widespread than ever before [6]. 

Researchers from the University of Sydney, Dr. Renata Ferrari, along with Associate Professor Will Figueira have taken a multifaceted approach to their work with coral reefs and 3D modeling technology by creating a project called the Ecological Modeling Hub, a virtual 3D map that can be used to monitor and measure the Great Barrier Reef and identify where environmental changes are having the biggest negative impact. Images for this unique map were obtained using photogrammetry 3D scanning techniques, and the accuracy of the visual information lets the researchers carry out important preservation work. “The idea behind that was to map, monitor and model the coral reefs and other marine ecosystems in three dimensions. If you can create a 3D map, then you can measure it, because you literally have a map of the corals on your computer. You can get anything you want out of it.”

The models can be potentially 3D printed and planted on the reefs themselves to support new growth. Unlike other artificial reefs, made in the past from scrap metal, cinder blocks or sunk ships [7], 3D printed reefs are very close to the structure of natural reefs, in this case, actually identical, the models were taken from the living reefs before they were bleached. “3D models are a very accurate and precise method to quantify both volume and surface area of coral colonies in situ without manipulating them, thereby avoiding the negative effects on corals associated with other more invasive methods such as change in volume measured by weight.”

Once placed on the natural reef, the 3D printed replicas will hopefully attract new coral polyps which will anchor themselves in the structure, grow and reproduce, forming new reefs that will attract new species of marine wildlife. The 3D printed coral models have already been tested successfully in water, the next step being scaling up their project. 

While some studies say that the effects of climate change and the human interventions have caused unalterable damage to the Great Barrier Reef [8,9,10], the researchers at the University of Sydney are more optimistic about its chances of survival. But, without global policy to target the impacts of climate change, targeted initiatives such as the one Dr. Renata Ferrari and her team were proposing are essentially worthless. If carbon emissions are curbed, local and regional interventions can have a huge, positive impact and effect on the health and resilience of the reef.”