In October 2020, Australian scientists found a detached coral reef skyscraper on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef—nearly 500 meters tall and 1.5 kilometres wide— that exceeds the height of the Eiffel Tower and New York’s Empire State Building. This was the first discovery of its kind in 120 years.
It also signals a challenge – that we know relatively little about what lies underwater, given the high costs and still-nascent technology of ocean exploration.
To better understand the mysteries of the world’s oceans, a team of scientists is using satellite imaging to map out, in unprecedented detail, one of the planet’s most iconic underwater ecosystems: the shallow coral reef.
The researchers are part of the Allen Coral Atlas project, which is led by Vulcan, a philanthropic organization created by late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is working with Vulcan to build capacities of coral reef practitioners, managers and policy-makers around the world, especially in developing countries, on how to use the new Atlas.
“The atlas is meant to improve our understanding of our coral reef systems and drive better evidence-based policies to protect corals,” says Chuck Cooper, Managing Director of Government and Community Relations at Vulcan.
Corals under threat
Coral reefs foster one-quarter of all marine species and provide food, livelihoods, security and recreation for at least a billion people. But, pollution, overfishing and heatwaves due to climate change are threatening their existence.
Most coral reefs are still unmapped. Scientists are aiming to monitor, in real-time, these biodiverse underwater worlds to protect and restore them. Further, they want to identify patches of coral that are naturally more resistant to climate change. These “refugia” may hold secrets to learning how to mitigate the impact of warming seas on coral reefs.
The atlas, available to the public, uses satellite technology to create high-resolution images of corals that are then processed into detailed maps. The maps capture features that will allow scientists and the conservation community to compare coral reef health over time and understand the pressures reefs are facing.
The atlas will provide baselines for monitoring coral reef bleaching events and other short-term changes, evidence to inform policymaking, and compelling science to capture the public’s interest on the plight of corals.
Bleaching occurs when coral—tiny animals that secrete calcium carbonate for protection—become stressed by factors such as warm water or pollution. As a result, they expel the microscopic symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae, which reside within their tissues. The corals then turn ghostly white; they become ‘bleached’(watch these coral bleaching explainer videos).
The origins of the atlas
Three years ago, Paul Allen charged Vulcan with saving the world’s corals, says Paulina Gerstner, the Allen Coral Atlas Program Manager. “As a technologist, he saw tremendous data gaps and challenged us to figure out how to apply the emerging availability of satellite imagery to map and monitor the world’s coral reefs. All of them.”
Allen – an avid scuba diver – was deeply committed to the protection of marine ecosystems. He was already funding coral research, but his concern intensified in 2017 when Allen found his favourite reef dive sites bleached and dying. That’s when he tasked the team with the ambitious goal of mapping the world’s corals. (Allen died in 2018.)
“Our goal is to make conservation restoration and protection much easier, affordable and faster for all conservationists around the world,” says Gerstner.
“In the face of inaction, coral reefs will soon disappear,” says Leticia Carvalho, the Coordinator of UNEP’s Marine and Freshwater Branch. “Humanity must act with evidence-based urgency towards effective ecosystem management and protection to change the trajectory.”
UNEP is training officials in coastal states on how to use the atlas and supporting efforts to develop policies that safeguard coral reefs. Alongside Vulcan, which is funding the project, other partners include the University of Queensland, Planet Inc., Arizona State University and the National Geographic Society.
An instrumental tool
In May 2020, a long-standing partner of UNEP, the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), called on its 44 member states, which are home to 75 percent of the world’s coral reefs, to step up their conservation efforts. Francis Staub, the ICRI Secretariat Coordinator, says the atlas will be instrumental in that process, helping countries understand “where coral reefs are and the area they cover.”
The atlas uses images from Planet Labs, which operates the world’s largest fleet of Earth-observing satellites. Daily, the Planet Labs’ satellites photograph Earth’s entire surface in minute detail. Researchers will analyze the satellite images and produce maps that catalogue the depths of reefs and their location, while differentiating them from other underwater phenomena, including seagrasses, rocks and sand.
The atlas coincides with the launch of two major environmental campaigns: the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development and the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.
Notable coral reefs that have been mapped include the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and systems in Fiji, the Bahamas and Hawaii. The project aims to have 100 per cent of the world’s reefs mapped by the summer of 2021.
From mussels to meadows, the sea offers big lessons for all life
By ALI JONES
In the Tuscan Archipelago, the seagrass meadows capture carbon up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests. The underwater flowering plants have the potential to be an essential tool in the fight against climate change but are vulnerable to disturbance from human activities such as tourism and fishing.
Coordinated from Cork, Ireland, the four-year Marine SABRES project is bringing people together to work on the conservation and restoration of the ancient beds of Tuscan seagrass as one of its focus areas.
Arctic and archipelagos
The effects of climate change are being felt in oceans all over the world. With 22 institutions from 11 Member States, the EU-funded project will strengthen marine biodiversity in the Tuscan Archipelago, the Arctic and Macaronesia (a group of four volcanic archipelagos in the North Atlantic Ocean).
For the seagrass growing in the Tuscan Archipelago, that means looking at the impact of tourism on its conservation. Numerous groups – from port authorities to tour operators – are involved in tourism. The project’s first job is to identify these key players, then to discuss feasible options with them and inspire local residents to get involved.
‘We want to try to enable managers working in these areas to make sustainable decisions,’ said Dr Emma Verling, who is coordinating Marine SABRES at University College Cork. ‘And to empower citizens to engage more with marine biodiversity conservation.’
One of the project’s main goals is to make it clear how economic, social and ecological systems are all interlinked.
‘We have to try to help people better understand that we really are being sustained by marine ecosystems,’ said Verling. ‘The Ocean is not just a beautiful thing – there is a real connection between it, our health and our livelihoods.’
Each of the three locations will assemble a group unique to its own activities and help stakeholders tackle social, economic and environmental factors they face in decisions that impact on biodiversity.
A second project in Ireland is driving community engagement with some of Europe’s youngest citizens. A high-tech mobile classroom – known as the Aquaculture Remote Classroom (ARC) – is bringing a new generation of marine resources to primary school children. It’s part of a push to restore and protect our oceans for future generations.
Devised by Ireland’s Seafood Development Agency (BIM) and funded by the EU, the experience features Virtual Reality (VR) headsets giving children a virtual dive into aquaculture to discover the processes of fish and shellfish production.
Children and aquaculture
The roving classroom brings to life the sights and sounds of the sea, explaining how salmon, oysters and mussels are farmed in Irish waters. In Ireland, no point is more than 100 kilometres from the sea. And while many of the youngsters live in coastal communities, they generally know very little about aquaculture.
Thirty thousand children have visited the classroom so far and it has been getting rave reviews.
‘The ARC was amazing – it was great fun,’ is how one school pupil from Shanagolden National School in County Limerick described the experience. ‘We learned all about seafood, the food pyramid and how humans affect the seas and coastal environments.’ Plus: ‘The VR headsets were cool.’
By reaching out to young minds, the project hopes to instil knowledge early and debunk the myths about disease and harm that can plague the aquaculture industry, according to Caroline Bocquel, interim chief executive officer of BIM.
‘ARC is an ideal opportunity to raise students’ awareness of the aquaculture sector and to the get the factual, positive story of Irish aquaculture out to communities,’ Bocquel said. ‘To explain that it’s a force for good that creates jobs, with good career progression.’
Adults too are often uninformed about how aquaculture works and what the dietary benefits of eating fish and seafood are. So when schools are on holiday, the ARC features at seafood festivals and science-outreach events.
On the move
Both ARC and Marine SABRES can be upscaled to other regions and countries.
‘We see the ARC as a template for other European nations for aquaculture education and ultimately being part of a connected, cohesive education network that will drive understanding and appreciation of the benefits of sustainable aquaculture,’ said Bocquel.
Meanwhile, another EU-funded project called Prep4Blue is also putting citizens, policymakers and businesses at the heart of research in the field. Guided by social and sustainable science, the three-year Prep4Blue will provide tools for researchers to engage people in the gathering of knowledge to protect the Ocean.
Coordinated by the French Institute for Ocean Science (IFREMER), it incorporates 17 partners in eight countries.
‘The knowledge is there,’ says Prep4Blue coordinator Dr Natalia Martin Palenzuela, ‘But somehow we don’t change our behaviour.”
All of these projects come up through the EU’s ambitious Mission Ocean and Waters, which is a clarion call to rise to the challenge of protecting and restoring these ecosystems by 2030.
It’s a broad basis for science-based ecological action. ‘The Mission approach intends to increase the uptake of scientific knowledge by citizens and stakeholders including policy makers, consumers, the economic sector and so on,’ said Dr Martin Palenzuela.
Research in this article was funded by the EU. This material was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
EU MISSION: RESTORE OUR OCEAN AND WATERS
The Mission Ocean & Waters will help achieve the marine and freshwater targets of the European Green Deal, such as protecting 30% of the EU’s sea area and restoring marine eco-systems and 25 000km of free-flowing rivers.
Within the Mission, four ‘lighthouses’ in major sea and river basins are test beds for innovative solutions. The Atlantic-Arctic lighthouse is focusing on shoring up coastal resilience by restoring marine and freshwater ecosystems and biodiversity.
It’s a formidable challenge. For the Mission to succeed it needs to mobilise and engage citizens, scientists, policy makers and all stakeholders.
On 24-25 November 2022, the European Commission, with the support of Ireland, will organise an event to mobilise a wide range of stakeholders to join the Mission “Restore our Ocean and Waters by 2030”, and particularly the Atlantic-Arctic lighthouse. Follow the link to learn more about the event.
Barcelona and Munich become zero waste candidate cities
The European cities of Barcelona and Munich have signed an official commitment to become zero waste, becoming the biggest cities in Europe that will get the certification.
The Zero Waste Cities Certification is a robust European third-party assessed certification standard, developed by the non-governmental organisation Mission Zero Academy (MiZA) and powered by Zero Waste Europe (ZWE).
With a population of approximately 1,6 million, Barcelona would become one of the biggest European municipalities implementing a zero waste strategy, with a wide range of waste prevention, reuse and recycling measures in place. The city has created a dedicated strategy for improvements, engaging widely both with the local community and different stakeholders to facilitate the zero waste transition.
Following this commitment, Barcelona will start implementing their zero waste strategy. Some of the objectives for the coming years are:
- Working towards reducing municipal solid waste. The city is including zero waste philosophy around all the waste management;
- A 67% separate waste collection rate by 2027, while the European average is about 48%;
- 427 kg of waste generation per capita per year by 2027.
Mentors: Rezero has been the mentor organisation of Barcelona. The Spanish organisation provides knowledge and promotes ideas, regulations and innovative projects so that companies, public administrations and citizens have the opportunity to enjoy a model of production and consumption towards zero waste, without toxic materials or products that are left unused. The Barcelona City Council has been working for years on waste prevention: with the Zero Plastic Commitment, the Carbon Calculator and the Barcelona Zero Waste Plan 2021-2027.
Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona said: “Big cities are in debt with their territory, we produce a huge amount of waste and it’s about time we become responsible of it. Barcelona’s commitment with the Zero Waste strategy shows that we do care and that we do act: we aim to be a neutral city and to inspire many others”.
Joan Marc Simon, Executive Director of ZWE stated: “I remember that when we brought the zero waste concept to Barcelona back in 2010 they called us fools. Today I’m proud that my hometown joins many others in the club of virtuous management of resources. Barcelona still has many challenges ahead, but the commitment to the zero waste certification is a step in the right direction!”
Rosa García, General Director of Rezero said: “At Rezero we are happy that a city like Barcelona is moving towards Zero Waste. It is an important challenge and we will help in everything necessary to achieve the European certification. We also encourage other towns and cities to apply, as Barcelona has done today”.
Munich, the third most populous city in Germany by number of inhabitants, (1,6 million), is another important European municipality that has signed for the zero waste commitment. In July, its City Council a concept in which around 100 city-wide measures are defined to reduce Munich’s waste volume and conserve resources. This concept is now starting to be implemented by the waste management company Munich (AWM). To align with the required criteria of becoming a Zero Waste Candidate City, the City of Munich commits to the following:
- Waste from households per capita per year in the state capital Munich will be reduced by 15 % to 310 kg / (E*a) by 2035.
- The amount of residual waste will be reduced by 35 % to 127 kg / capita by 2035. In the long-term, the City of Munich will achieve an average residual waste volume of less than 100 kg per capita per year.
- In the long-term, Munich is working towards the goal of reducing municipal solid waste (MSW) in landfills and waste incineration to a waste-management feasible minimum.
Dieter Reiter, Mayor of Munich said: “Munich is continuing on the path towards zero waste, which I initiated at the end of 2019. I believe it is very important that we, the City of Munich, benefit from others’ experiences as part of a European zero waste network, but also inspire other cities. By signing the Zero Waste Commitment today, we are underscoring our commitment to becoming a city that produces as little waste as possible and conserves resources. Munich is taking on a pioneering role – against wasting resources and for the environment.”
Kristina Frank, Municipal Officer in charge of city waste management added: “Today we are one more step towards the finish line. With our commitment, we are part of a European network that shares a common vision: As little waste as possible, no waste of resources. In the coming week, AWM will propose to the city council to establish a cross-departmental zero-waste office to run purposefully in the direction of our ambitious goals. For this, we would like to thank all our employees, who have developed a great concept in record time.”
Kaisa Karjalainen, Mission Zero Academy Manager stated: “With big cities come big impacts and therefore, it is great to have Munich joining our Zero Waste Cities Certification system. We look forward to working with the city to help them optimise their already existing systems and achieve great results. I’m sure Munich will be a great inspiration to other large European cities and a role model that zero waste is also possible in big cities.”
UN’s highest environmental honour celebrates ecosystem restoration
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) today announced its 2022 Champions of the Earth, honouring a conservationist, an enterprise, an economist, a women’s rights activist, and a wildlife biologist for their transformative action to prevent, halt and reverse ecosystem degradation.
Since its inception in 2005, the annual Champions of the Earth award has been awarded to trailblazers at the forefront of efforts to protect our natural world. It is the UN’s highest environmental honour. To date, the award has recognized 111 laureates: 26 world leaders, 69 individuals and 16 organizations. This year a record 2,200 nominations from around the world were received.
“Healthy, functional ecosystems are critical to preventing the climate emergency and loss of biodiversity from causing irreversible damage to our planet. This year’s Champions of the Earth give us hope that our relationship with nature can be repaired,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. “This year’s Champions demonstrate how reviving ecosystems and supporting nature’s remarkable capacity for regeneration is everyone’s job: governments, the private sector, scientists, communities, NGOs and individuals.”
UNEP’s 2022 Champions of the Earth are:
Arcenciel (Lebanon), honoured in the Inspiration and Action category, is a leading environmental enterprise whose work to create a cleaner, healthier environment has laid the foundation for the country’s national waste management strategy. Today, arcenciel recycles more than 80 per cent of Lebanon’s potentially infectious hospital waste every year.
Constantino (Tino) Aucca Chutas(Peru), also honoured in the Inspiration and Action category, has pioneered a community reforestation model driven by local and Indigenous communities, which has led to three million trees being planted in the country. He is also leading ambitious reforestation efforts in other Andean countries.
Sir Partha Dasgupta (United Kingdom), honoured in the Science and Innovation category, is an eminent economist whose landmark review on the economics of biodiversity calls for a fundamental rethink of humanity’s relationship with the natural world to prevent critical ecosystems from reaching dangerous tipping points.
Dr Purnima Devi Barman (India), honoured in the Entrepreneurial Vision category, is a wildlife biologist who leads the “Hargila Army”, an all-female grassroots conservation movement dedicated to protecting the Greater Adjutant Stork from extinction. The women create and sell textiles with motifs of the bird, helping to raise awareness about the species while building their own financial independence.
Cécile Bibiane Ndjebet (Cameroon), honoured in the Inspiration and Actioncategory, is a tireless advocate for the rights of women in Africa to secure land tenure, which is essential if they are to play a role in restoring ecosystems, fighting poverty and mitigating climate change. She is also leading efforts to influence policy on gender equality in forest management across 20 African countries.
Following the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), this year’s awards shine a spotlight on efforts to prevent, halt and reverse ecosystem degradation globally.
Ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean face massive threats. Every year, the planet loses forest cover equivalent to the size of Portugal. Oceans are being overfished and polluted, with 11 million tonnes of plastic alone ending up in marine environments annually. One million species are at risk of extinction as their habitats disappear or become polluted.
Ecosystem restoration is essential for keeping global warming below 2°C and helping societies and economies to adapt to climate change. It is also crucial to fighting hunger: restoration through agroforestry alone has the potential to increase food security for 1.3 billion people. Restoring just 15 per cent of converted lands could reduce the risk of species extinction by 60 per cent. Ecosystem restoration will only succeed if everyone joins the #GenerationRestoration movement.
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