Creating High-Resolution Maps Of The Great Barrier Reef

29 November 2013 8:06 PM

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The remote and unique nature of much of the Great Barrier Reef has long prevented the creation of comprehensive maps of this unique undersea ecosystem.

Using satellite data, researchers from James Cook University in Australia and the German company EOMAP recently generated a series of high-resolution 3D maps of the Great Barrier Reef. The researchers said their maps of 135,000 square miles of coral reef are a critical step towards identifying, managing and looking after one of the world’s most important ecosystems.

Previous efforts to map the reef from survey vessels or aircraft have largely been unsuccessful. To create their maps, the team used satellite imagery, tide data and ocean floor topography information. The mapping team used a technique known as satellite bathymetry, which uses various wavelengths of reflected light to resolve ocean depth. The satellites were able to generate data through clear water for depths of up to 65 feet under calm weather conditions, the team said.

EOMAP analyzed the satellite data to eliminate disturbances from waves, cloud cover and atmospheric interference. The German company also accounted for different tides and turbidity – a measure of sediment circulating in seawater.

The team said their maps are accurate within about 4 inches for depth and 98 feet horizontally, on average. At its highest degree of refinement, the EOMAP data is accurate to within 6.6 feet – a level of accuracy the team is currently targeting for the entire reef.

“Based on our trials, this promises to be an even more astounding product,” Magnus Wettle, Senior Scientist at EOMAP, told Yahoo! News. “To be honest, I’d like to see the Australian Government partner with us on this, our next endeavor, so that it would belong to Australia as a national resource.

“Having said that, our priority is to make it happen, so we have to be prepared to be pragmatic,” he added.

The German company has made their high-resolution maps available for purchase in 7.7 square mile sections, with a minimum order value of $500. Less accurate versions of the maps are available online for free. Despite the price tag, many organizations will probably be clamoring for these maps, according to Stuart Phinn, a member of the mapping team from of the University of Queensland in Australia.

“This information is regarded as essential for any government or company involved with managing the reef environment,” he said.

With conservationists keen on keeping the reef in good health and Australian miners looking to send more coal-filled ships to Asia on routes that may pass through or close to the reef, there may be many prospective buyers for the high-resolution maps.

EOMAP has been supported by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Business Incubation Centre in Bavaria, one of the nine locations set up to support start-up companies and new businesses. The centers allow fledgling companies to draw on the ESA’s space technology and satellite services. EOMAP’s novel satellite service for mapping the seafloor recently won the T-Systems Cloud Computing Challenge in this year’s Copernicus Masters competition.


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