WHOI-led Project on Coral Reef Tech Awarded $5M from NSF

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) $5 million to participate in NSF’s groundbreaking Convergence Accelerator Program. The project, led by WHOI scientist Anne Cohen, builds the world’s first Coral Reef Digital Twin, a 4-dimensional virtual replica of a living coral reef powered by state-of-the art data and models. “Digital Reefs” will be accessible and usable by coral reef stakeholders around the world who are making critical decisions every day to manage and protect these valuable ocean ecosystems.

Palmyra Atoll is an uninhabited coral reef ecosystem located in the central tropical Pacific. Palmyra was chosen by the WHOI team as the site for the first coral reef digital twin because a long history of research at the island has amassed a treasure trove of data and models, enabling the team to hit the ground running as they develop the project. Image Credit: Michael Fox © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

​​​​​​​The Phase 2 team includes: Siemens Technology, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, and Stanford University, in addition to WHOI. Also on the team are Mote Marine Laboratory, the Marshall Islands Conservation Society, University of Guam, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Academy of Marine Research (NAMR) Taiwan, and Ebiil Society, Palau, whose major role will be to develop user-inspired modules, lead training workshops and advance the use of Digital Reefs in reef restoration.

“Globally, coral reefs support almost one billion people and are one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. But coral reefs continue to decline at an unprecedented rate, despite a surge in data, funding, and political will in the last couple of decades,” said Cohen. “We found the problem is not lack of access to data and information. It is a lack of access, by decision makers—fishermen, managers, risk assessors, government agencies—to intuitive, interactive, actionable data. Almost everyone nowadays has a cellphone, there is a lot of data out there, people just can’t use it.”

“Our goal is to facilitate universal access to data and information that right now are available to just a handful of people. Democratization of information is the only way we can truly ensure that coral reefs have a future on our planet, and Digital Reefs is how we get there,” said Cohen.

The 21st century has brought with it unprecedented challenges for coral reefs, mainly from climate change, demanding new and innovative approaches to management, conservation, and restoration. Fundamental to effective decision-making is access to science-based data, information, and decision-making tools.

“As reefs around the world suffer, so do the diverse and often vulnerable coastal ecosystems and humans that depend upon them,” said Joe Pollock, Ph.D., Senior Coral Reef Resilience Scientist at TNC. “We work to empower local communities with the tools, information, and partnerships needed to better safeguard reefs and the lives and livelihoods they sustain. Digital Reefs has the potential to revolutionize reef management and restoration by providing fine-scale, actionable information in an immersive, engaging, and highly visual format.”

Digital Twins are already widely used in industry and healthcare, where exact virtual replicas of engines, railway networks, and even human bodies are used to understand and test what-if scenarios, facilitate collaboration amongst different teams, and assist with decision making. The WHOI-led project, Digital Reefs: A Globally Coordinated, Universally Accessible Digital Twin Network for the Coral Reef Blue Economy, will develop the Digital Reefs prototype of Palmyra Atoll, and apply the prototype technology to reefs in the Marshall Islands and Taiwan as a test of their scaling model to build a global Digital Reefs network. 

Digital Reefs translates complex data and numerical model output into a digital replica of a coral reef. Users accessing the Digital Reef from their computer or cell phone will be immersed in a dynamic 4-D visualization of currents and corals, rather than a spreadsheet of numbers, although the supporting data will be downloadable. Users can move across the reef, and scuba dive into its depths to access information about water flow, temperatures, and reef inhabitants. The Digital Reefs platform will offer users the opportunity to visualize the reef in years past, and in the future as sea level rises and the ocean warms. Decision making tools enable users to change the reef —virtually— and examine the impact of the proposed changes, such as building a hotel or dredging a channel for boat access. Stakeholders can visualize how future climate change will affect their reef and the specific areas where they fish and farm.   Restoration practitioners will be able to test which areas of the reef are optimal for restoration and to visualize larval dispersal patterns from restored areas.

“We’re in a crisis of survival for coral reefs,” said Stanford’s Steve Palumbi, “and we’re also in a crisis of data complexity. Everything about a reef is complex, so how do you make a decision about saving your local reef for your community and family when the answer is complicated? Digital Reefs takes data from the physics, biology, physiology, and ecology of a complex reef and shows you what its future is likely to be, depending on what you do, and decisions you make. We are all excited about contributing what we do best, to make this effort work.”

“Our work with NSF and WHOI highlights the boundless opportunities we now have available to us through digital twin technology,” said Virginie Maillard, Head of Siemens Technology US. "As we enter the next phase of this project, Siemens Technology will leverage its expertise in industrial digital twin to create a tangible digital twin of the coral reef that can be utilized by all, no matter background or expertise, for the greater purpose of collaboration to save our planet's marine ecosystem."

“There is a unique opportunity in offering people immersive access to underwater habitats,” said Stuart Sandin, professor of marine ecology, at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “The growth of digital data is a first step in understanding coral reefs, but the critical next step is in providing easy access to these data; the Digital Reefs project will build the tools to provide just this access.” 

In September 2021, the NSF Convergence Accelerator Program launched the 2021 cohort and awarded $21 million across 28 multidisciplinary teams, focused on phase 1 of the Track E: Networked Blue Economy and Track F: Trust & Authenticity in Communication Systems. In September 2022, NSF has made an additional $30 million investment in the Networked Blue Economy to advance use-inspired solutions addressing national-scale societal challenges. Track E: The Networked Blue Economy aims to create a smart, integrated, connected, and open ecosystem for ocean innovation, exploration, and sustainable utilization. WHOI’s team is one of 12 teams of the original cohort of 28, moving on to Phase 2 of the program.

Source: https://www.nsf.gov/

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