Covering just .1% of the ocean floor and supporting an astonishing 25% of all marine life, coral reefs are crucial to maintaining Earth's biodiversity. Climate change and pollution threaten many coral reefs, but scientists aren't always sure exactly how—and to what extent. Blame antiquated modeling techniques. "We’re going in and using a tape measure or a piece of chain to measure," says Sly Lee, a marine scientist who founded the science communication nonprofit the Hydrous, along with Luke Walker and Yasmeen Smalley. "We are talking about sending people to Mars, but [for this] we're still using a tape measure?"
Enter 3-D modeling. With simple software, scientists are able to map how coral reefs have changed over time—then provide that data to policymakers and others who can advocate for better protective measures.
In 2014, Lee was working on a shipwreck in Pearl Harbor, which scientists were surveying with the use of 3-D modeling. Lee realized that the technology could be applied to coral reefs. Using a Cannon 5D Mark 3 camera (he says even an iPhone camera would work), Lee dove into the water and filmed reefs until he had 2-D visuals of a 30-foot-by-30-foot area. He then processed the data and uploaded it to Autodesk Memento, software by the company whose rendering is at the heart of animation in movies like Avatar. From there, Autodesk's supercomputers turn his images into detailed digital models in only a few days.
Lee says these 3-D models can revolutionize scientists' ability to track the changes in coral reefs. Simple things like a coral's growth rate, the spread of disease, and how coral recovers from storms could never be measured precisely using the old techniques. The Memento software quantifies the surface area and volume of the coral they capture, providing hard numbers on the change in size and shape over time. The scientists are working with Autodesk to find a way to overlay multiple images from different time periods, so the reefs can be compared visually as well.
The data gathered could help scientists push for policies that protect reefs, by providing precise numbers on the adverse effects of things like overfishing or construction in or near the water. Lee plans to use the software to track the effects of El Niño on coral reefs in the Maldives, something that's never been done before in accurate 3-D.
Since last year, Lee and his team have mapped a reef with an area of about 30 feet by 30 feet. Their next goal is to capture an area of more than 300 feet by 300 feet. Lee is hopeful that soon, anyone with a camera will be able to go out and capture images that contribute to his growing map of endangered coral reefs. Right now, the images that laypeople take with, say, an iPhone 6, can be turned into 3-D models that look nice, but don't contain the level of detail necessary for scientific inquiry. The software needs to be refined so that even less advanced cameras can capture the level of detail necessary for Lee's research. Says Lee: "One of our biggest goals is to put this technology in the hands of people who are living near these environments."