Mapping shows how Great Barrier Reef is impacted by major weather events

By Melissa Coade

Sunday September 26, 2021

New satellite imagery and underwater mapping produces the most detailed information about the terrain of the Great Barrier Reef to date.
New satellite imagery and underwater mapping produces the most detailed information about the terrain of the Great Barrier Reef to date. (whitcomberd/Adobe)

New technology combining satellite imagery and underwater mapping has produced the most detailed information about the biological terrain of the Great Barrier Reef to date, revealing how its more than 3,000 reefs connect and more.

Developed by the University of Queensland, the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the mapping technology is already being used to understand the impact of major weather events and also control crown-of-thorns starfish in the reef. 

In a joint statement with Australia’s special envoy for the Great Barrier Reef Warren Entsch, environment minister Sussan Ley explained that the tool used thousands of individual satellite images were producing a high-resolution picture of the offshore reef.

“[This makes] how we look at individual reefs easier, clearer, and more accurate,” Ley said. 

The minister went on to claim that the World Heritage site was ‘the best managed reef system in the world’. She added that the new mapping tool was an example of science being used to inform its management. 

Earlier this year, Australia took issue with a decision by the United Nations world heritage committee to list the Reef as ‘in danger’ arguing that a report produced by Australia’s marine science agency had found widespread coral recovery in significant areas of the reef.

In June, Ley criticised the decision for not being foreshadowed by the committee and singling out Australia with its ‘unprecedented approach’.

“I recognise climate change is the biggest threat to the Reef,” Ley told ABC Breakfast television in June.

“And the European countries take a different view than we do but this is not the forum in which to express that view.”

The minister suggested that UNESCO was an inappropriate forum to conduct climate change policy debate and underscored that she was prepared to stand up anywhere and say the Great Barrier Reef was the best managed reef in the world.

“The forum in which to have arguments about climate change policy is the United Nations framework convention for climate change,” Ley said.

“UNESCO is about the management that each state parties does on its Word Heritage sites and we have invested $3 billion under the Reef 2050 Plan.”

Dr Chris Roelfsema, the lead scientists for the Reef habitat mapping project, said that he was delighted to have worked with the marine park authority to develop the maps.

“We are delighted to collaborate on this work with the authority to bring together field knowledge, high quality satellite imagery and improved mapping and modelling methodologies,” Roelfsema said.

Reef envoy Entsch added that technology would help to target extensive water programs to protect the reef.

“This information enables us to better understand habitat types on some of these remote reefs and the ways cyclones and physical damage from predatory starfish may impact resilience,” Entsch said. 

Access to the new mapping data of the Reef shows the bathymetry layer (satellite-derived water depth of ocean floor), geomorphological zones (reef slope, reef crest, reef flat, lagoon and island), benthic habitat type (sand, rubble, rock and coral/algae) and Sentinel 2 satellite data imagery, stitched, rectified and managed for reflectance.

Data can be accessed from the Reef Knowledge System with two interfaces: one which explores the Reef, and another that shows monitoring and assessment activities. The data is subject to Creative Commons and cannot be used for commercial use.


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