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Squaring the Coral Triangle

Speed read
  • Coral Triangle visualization featured in XSEDE16 visualization showcase.
  • Coral bleaching is a direct result of climate change.
  • Visualization informs scientists of complex flow dynamics impacting coral bed seeding.

If you hadn’t noticed, scientific visualizations can look really cool. They can also be a strong method for sharing scientific understanding with the public. But scientific visualizations really hit their stride when they inspire.

Going with the flow. This visualization by Scott Pearse, software engineer in the Data Analysis Services Group at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), explains how coral larvae spread through the Indonesian Throughflow. Courtesy Scott Pearce; NCAR.

Take, for instance, Scott Pearse’s visualization of the ocean currents in the Coral Triangle.

His fresh look at the flow dynamics in the most biodiverse region on our planet shines like a beam of sunny hope, illustrating how coral reefs are germinated and why some are not. 

Change for the worse

Bleached coral has succumbed to stressors of increased C02 and temperature in the ocean. Due to spiking ocean temperatures, coral colonies expel the algae living within their tissues, leaving the remaining exoskeleton colorless.

Rising temperatures also mean storms increase in frequency and severity, raising the likelihood of coral reef destruction. More storms bring freshwater and algae blooms, blocking out crucial sunlight. 

Climate change alters ocean currents as well, which transform the way reefs are connected and fed, and can be a major cause of the decline of a coral reef.

Current affairs

That’s where Pearse’s vizzy comes in. Building on the work of NCAR marine ecologists, Pearse brings to life a dataset from the Coral Triangle Regional Ocean Model System (CT-ROMS).

<strong>Triangle of life. </strong>Ocean currents interacting with the sea floor help to create extraordinary biodiversity in the Coral Triangle. Climate change is placing this maritime continent at risk. Courtesy Coral Triangle Atlas.

Using 3D rendering software called VAPOR (Visualization and Analysis Platform for Ocean, Atmosphere, and Solar Research), he illustrates the interaction between the ocean currents and the complex ocean floor in the Indonesian Throughflow (ITF).

The project used Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) resources, including the Yellowstone supercomputer and the Geyser visualization cluster.

Pearse’s visualization begins with a look at the global conveyor belt connecting all oceans, then zooms into the area known as the Coral Triangle. Because of the ocean flow in this region, the Coral Triangle is considered one of the most biodiverse spots on the globe, with fully 1/3 of all marine life associated with the coral beds in this region.

As ocean currents move through the Indonesian archipelago, high turbulence, flow reversal, and other complex flow processes occur.

“Unfortunately, there are very few oceanographic observations from this region, and so we felt we could provide a lot of valuable insights in the physical oceanography quickly and cheaply by building this model,” says Joanie Kleypas, marine ecologist at NCAR. 

Making the connection

Of particular interest to these scientists is the metric known as ‘Potential Connectivity,’ the main lesson in Pearse’s visualization. Potential Connectivity measures how well coral reefs disburse their larva, and tells oceanographers and marine ecologists how likely bleached reefs are to be repopulated.

Most telling was seeing how Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was isolated from other reefs in the Coral Triangle. More encouraging is to see how the complex flow in the ITF can create vortices that collect a bundle of larva and then deliver it hundreds of miles away over a year’s time.

“I must have watched these simulations that Scott produced a hundred times. Each time, I seem to see something else that I never noticed before,” says NCAR oceanographer Frederic Castruccio. “In some regions, the transport is like a river, and in others it is a mixing bowl, and such differences highlight the advantages and disadvantages of each, and help us ‘think like a coral’.”

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) brings together a multidisciplinary approach to inform more effective coral reef management. Courtesy NOAA.

Scientific visualizations are sure cool to watch. But they’re more than just a pretty face. Since coral beds are the base of the marine food chain, and since the ITF has enormous ability to transfer heat from the ocean to the atmosphere and check heat and salt water circulation around the globe, it is an understatement to say that studying this region has a very high importance.

All environmental preservation efforts must begin with an accurate view of their subject. Pearse’s contribution is a clearer picture of the ocean currents that seed coral reefs, those integral reservoirs of life.

“At least we’re understanding how it works so we can rattle the bell a little bit louder. We can prove now that the barrier reef is isolated, and add stress to the dialogue that we need to back-peddle on global warming,” notes Pearse. “At this point there are tangible things that we’re losing, it’s not just things getting hotter or being more uncomfortable. There are actually real-world resources disappearing in front of our eyes.” 

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