Coding to save our coral reefs


Coral reefs are one of the most
vulnerable and threatened ecosystems to climate change. Understanding the global impact of climate change on coral reefs is being presented at important policy
conferences and meetings all around the world. Our data are scattered all over
the world and we really need to bring that together and be able to collaborate
together to have a common voice when we go to negotiate for why it’s important
to deal with climate change now. So, we’re here in Mombasa Kenya. My name is Emily Darling, and I’m an associate conservation scientist with the Wildlife
Conservation Society. My job is to coordinate our monitoring field teams
all over the world for coral reef science. That includes surveys that are
under the water counting corals and fish and sea urchins and other coral reef
processes, as well as our social and economic monitoring—so thinking about
the ways that people depend on coral reefs and how they use them for their
livelihoods and culture. Coral reefs around the world are in a crisis.
There has been a shocking decline of living corals over the last several decades,
which makes them very imperiled in terms of the function they’re able to provide to fishes that use corals for their homes
and ultimately to fisheries who depend on that biomass in order to feed
themselves and their families. When we go out to do any kinds of
surveys, I tend to be the one who’s counting the coral, so I know the coral
taxonomy really well. I know the different species of coral, and basically
I’ll measure a number of things. One of those things would be: what’s the cover
of coral? You know, it’s hard coral soft coral and so on. But also, are they
bleaching? That is, losing their algae and turning white? Or have they been damaged
from other means like breakage and so on? So there’s a number of things that
I will measure for coral. There has been some dramatic losses. The last big
compilation we did was about ten years ago after the 1998 event. During that
time, 50 percent of the corals died in basically one year. Imagine that half the
forests in the United States died in one year. Imagine what sort of outcry and
what sort of impact that would have. Now, the issue with corals is it requires
people out there diving and measuring these things to know that. A lot of this
would not even be known if it wasn’t for people like us. Once our teams come back in from the field, the data has been written by
pencil onto these slates. The first step is to then transfer that information on
our slates into Excel. We then move into R, where we’ve written code that
automatically ingests the information in those Excel templates and puts them all
together into one big data set. Once we start working in R we’re working in
another language, and so we need to make sure that we version control
those changes or version control that language. And so GitHub is a really good
place for us to store our code, to comment on our code, and then to make
sure that everyone knows how the code is being used and how they can improve
their coding to be able to improve their science. Because we’ve got large datasets,
we need to use increasingly sophisticated techniques to be able to
understand these datasets better. To be able to do that, you either hire somebody
and pay a lot of money, or you find open source softwares or network that can
help out. The faster you can do that, the faster you can get it into policy. That’s
one of my roles—is to try and get the speed between policy to science as
fast as possible. It’s important to do that because globally things are moving
very fast. We are experiencing at a greater speed the effects of climate
change. We’ve had quite a number of other bleaching events, and they’re coming
faster and faster. We may not be able to solve the climate crisis if you like, but
we can locally work on sustainable fisheries; and if we have sustainable
fisheries, the climate impacts will be there, but they won’t be as bad and as
negative as they possibly could be. And the most important thing is what we call
collective action. That is the ability of groups of people to get together to
actually change things. That collective action becomes more and more possible as
people become connected. They immediately start to think about solutions. Coral
reefs are going to change into the future. There’s no stopping that, but
trying to think about how we protect the ones we can and how we transform the
societies that depend on the ones that might not make it—that’s an
incredibly controversial and contentious conversation that we’re having, but that
we need to have as a society and we need to have that conversation that’s
informed by evidence. And the only way we have that evidence is by working
together around the world and trying to bring as much science as we can to
inform those really tough decisions.

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