How Aqualink Uses Smart Mooring to Monitor Ocean Climate Change

Emily Heaslip

How Aqualink Uses Smart Mooring to Monitor Ocean Climate Change

It’s estimated that, at the current rate of climate change, by 2100 there will be nearly zero suitable coral habitats remaining on Earth. Ocean acidification and climate change are decimating these fragile, yet critical, ecosystems — and scientists are working hard to find ways to stop this decline. 

[Read more: How Does Climate Change Affect the Ocean]

Aqualink is a philanthropically-funded organization working on building ocean conservation technology to track and mitigate the impact of rising ocean temperatures. The Aqualink team is taking a bold new approach to coral conservation: they are deploying Smart Moorings worldwide to help citizen scientists monitor sensitive coral reefs and underwater ecosystems.

By providing citizen scientists, researchers, and volunteers with the tools to better understand and monitor their local reefs, Aqualink hopes to better track and predict heat stress events, such as coral bleaching. Here’s how Aqualink is using Sofar Ocean’s Smart Mooring tech to innovatively monitor ocean climate change and help protect coral reefs.

Ocean climate change and coral reefs  

Coral reefs are a vital ecosystem not just for marine species, but for humans and coastal communities too. In addition to serving as breeding grounds for fish, nearly 500 million people depend on coral reefs for their livelihood and for protection from storms and coastal erosion. A big part of the global economy depends on the survival of coral reefs, too. In the Florida Keys, coral reefs support an estimated 70,400 jobs, mostly in tourism and fishing — generating $8.5 billion in revenue for the economy, according to Chemical & Engineering News.

Ocean acidification and climate change are decimating coral reefs — and scientists estimate that over the next 20 years, 70% - 90% of reefs will disappear. Climate change is causing an increase in ocean acidity, water temperatures, and pollution. Warming causes corals to lose their algae and bleach; ocean acidification makes it difficult for individual corals to build the calcium deposits that lead to larger reef structures. “If the pH is low enough and the corals unhealthy enough, reefs can even start to dissolve, making them vulnerable to shattering during storms,” reported C&EN

And, lastly, as the ocean warms, stratification increases. Ocean stratification is caused by differences in the density of water: warmer, less salty water layers on top of colder, saltier (and denser) water. As the ocean gets warmer, stratification changes. “Warmer water can absorb less oxygen, and the oxygen that is absorbed cannot mix as easily with the cooler ocean waters below, making it difficult for marine life to thrive. Warmer ocean water also leads to increased bleaching of coral reefs and more favorable conditions for intense long-lasting hurricanes to develop,” explained Laura Snider in NCAR & UCAR News

Stratification, acidification, and temperature increase paint a grim outlook for coral reefs. But, groups like Aqualink are seeking to mitigate the threat of climate change to these critical ecosystems. 

Measuring ocean water temperatures with buoys

How are groups like Aqualink approaching the problem of climate change? 

Satellite data is typically used to understand how climate change is impacting surface temperature. However, coral reefs and other essential marine ecosystems are not always near the surface. Ocean dynamics can mean there’s a large temperature difference between the surface and where reefs live, just a few meters down. Temperature data collected by satellite just isn’t that accurate when it comes to tracking reef survival. Aqualink aims to solve a specific problem that occurs when trying to monitor the ocean’s surface temperature from space.

Aqualink is using a wide network of Sofar Ocean Smart Mooring buoys to measure the temperature at the ocean floor. “By building as many of these buoys as we can, and deploying them around the world, we can begin to build a dataset that helps in understanding where and when heat stress in the ocean will occur,” explained Aqualink

Aqualink offers free buoys to volunteers, tour operators, researchers, and citizen scientists who can help expand the data collection network. Smart Moorings are used to collect temperature data every hour from both the surface and on the reef. This data is augmented with publicly available satellite data and models through NOAA’s “Daily Global 5km Satellite Coral Bleaching Heat Stress Monitoring” reports. Sofar Ocean imports the data from NOAA, and Aqualink uses our API to render the data in their web application. 

Check out the map on Aqualink’s website — you see global map with pins for each proposed monitoring site. The map can be overlaid with global data such as Heat Stress or Sea Surface Temperature from NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch.

Saving the world’s coral reefs

Better data is the first step to solving the climate crisis impacting our coral reefs. But we will also need to know what impact the temperature changes will have on the overall health of the reef. The data needs to be connected to observations. Aqualink coaches recreational divers and researchers on how to conduct meaningful surveys that are uploaded to the platform. By centralizing NOAA data, buoy data, and user-captured data in one place, scientists and coral reef experts all over the world can better understand and ultimately determine how to best protect these delicate ecosystems. 

Better temperature tracking can lead to the establishment of marine protected areas: national “parks” in the ocean where fishing, mining, and tourism/recreational activities are off-limits. Over time, these marine reserves can help reefs become healthier and more resilient. 

There are already some promising developments in the mission to save coral reefs, specifically related to breeding heat-tolerant species of corals.  Erinn Muller, the science director at the Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration in Sarasota, Florida, is leading a team that harvests samples of corals that have survived the environmental stresses naturally, breeds them by hand, and then reattaches the corals to the reef. Other researchers are focusing on the genetic components of corals that are able to survive heat waves or consistently warmer ocean temperatures. 

Ultimately, however, no amount of scientific innovation will be able to overcome global warming if it continues at the current rate. That’s what makes Aqualink so powerful — the group is encouraging ordinary citizens outside the scientific community to play a part in protecting coral reefs, thus raising awareness on a broader scale. 

Aqualink is just one group that’s using Sofar Ocean technology to combat the impact of ocean climate change. More transparency and open sharing of information from Aqualink and others is just the first step toward building a concerted effort to protect our oceans. Read more about Sofar Ocean’s buoys here.

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