Coral reefs are dying around Hawaii and researchers have turned to capturing them in 360-degree images to help, allowing for monitoring and further study.

In particular, coral reefs are undergoing bleaching, which occurs when water temperature is high. Due to the added heat in the water, corals lose key nutrients and turn white. If bleaching is too severe or recurrent, corals will die. Alarmingly, coral reefs in Hawaii have started to bleach for the second time in two years.

According to experts, when bleaching repeats too soon, it doesn't give the coral enough time to recover, which is why recurrent occurrences are likely to lead to death in corals. Extensive bleaching, however, is expected in Hawaii in 2015 because of record hot weather and El Nino weather pattern in the region. At the same time, a large area of hot water not related to the El Nino known as "the blob" is also moving west from mainland U.S.

"Unfortunately, from now on the extra heat is going to be quite damaging, and this is where the mortality of the corals goes up," said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, University of Queensland's Global Change Institute director and the chief scientist in the research team responsible for capturing 360-degree images of the corals.

The reef-mapping effort is part of a bigger project being carried out by the XL Caitlin Seaview Survey research team to capture thousands of reef images from all over the world. The researchers are doing this to understand why some coral species are likelier to succumb to bleaching compared to others. They are also looking for organisms that are able to better adapt to warming waters, staying healthy despite the rising temperature.

For the project, the researchers utilized facial recognition technology and GPS tags to aid in identifying and organizing separate reef systems. They have partnered with Google as well, uploading images to Google Street View so anyone can explore the coral reefs through the internet.

So far, the Seaview Survey has gathered data from reefs in Australia, Indonesia, Mexico and the Maldives. The researchers had baseline images from a portion of the Great Barrier Reef which was later destroyed by a typhoon. When they went back for an assessment, the researchers realized the extent of the damage by comparing before and after images.

The survey team was recently out in Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii and they were joined by Malia Chow, Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary superintendent from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She said she was surprised at how many corals have already begun bleaching.

Photo: U.S. Geological Survey | Flickr

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