The Global Reef Expedition: The Largest Coral Reef Survey and Mapping Expedition in History
2020 Special Issue on Coral Reefs
by Liz Thompson
The Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation sailed around the world to study coral reefs, returning with maps and data on the status of some of the most remote reefs on Earth
In 2011, the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation embarked on the Global Reef Expedition—an ambitious research mission to study the health and resiliency of coral reefs around the world. The expedition circumnavigated the globe mapping and surveying some of the most remote coral reefs on the planet. Many of these reefs had never been studied by scientists before.
The Foundation assembled an international team of scien- tists, photographers, videographers, and conservationists, who worked hand-in-hand with local leaders. This team includes nearly 200 scientists from 25 countries to assess reefs across the western Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Together, they took a snapshot in time, recording the health of coral reefs on Earth as they are today.
The Global Reef Expedition team mapped and character- ized the world’s coral ecosystems, identified their current status and major threats, and examined the factors that enhance their ability to recover from major disturbance events such as bleaching and cyclone damage, or outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish. After five years of studying over 1,000 coral reefs in 15 countries and conducting more than 11,000 standardized surveys documenting life on the reef and the seafloor, the field research is complete. Now, scientists are releasing their findings from the largest coral reef survey and mapping expedition in history.
©Keith Ellenbogen /iLCP
Scientists are still analyzing the data, but what they saw can’t be ignored. There was evidence of human impacts everywhere they went: the big fish were gone, plastics and discarded fishing gear were found on the most isolated reefs on Earth, and corals were bleaching before their eyes. The problems coral reefs faced varied between sites, and each reef had its own suite of issues to address, both natural and man-made. While some areas were in surprisingly good shape, almost all coun- tries visited on the Global Reef Expedition showed signs of coral reefs in crisis.
Coral reefs are considered a keystone ecosystem for assessing the health of the entire ocean. Although they occupy less than one-quarter of one percent of the marine environment, more than a quarter of all known marine fish species spend at least part of their lives in these delicate habitats. They are also vital ecosystems for humans. It is thought that one in seven people worldwide depends on coral reefs for food or income, so their impact on people far outstrips their relatively small size.