Assessing the spatial distribution of coral bleaching using small unmanned aerial systems
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Assessing the spatial distribution of coral bleaching using small unmanned aerial systems

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  • Journal Title:
    Coral Reefs
  • Description:
    Small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) are an affordable, effective complement to existing coral reef monitoring and assessment tools. sUAS provide repeatable low-altitude, high-resolution photogrammetry to address fundamental questions of spatial ecology and community dynamics for shallow coral reef ecosystems. Here, we qualitatively describe the use of sUAS to survey the spatial characteristics of coral cover and the distribution of coral bleaching across patch reefs in Kāneʻohe Bay, Hawaii, and address limitations and anticipated technology advancements within the field of UAS. Overlapping sub-decimeter low-altitude aerial reef imagery collected during the 2015 coral bleaching event was used to construct high-resolution reef image mosaics of coral bleaching responses on four Kāneʻohe Bay patch reefs, totaling ~ 60,000 m2. Using sUAS imagery, we determined that paled, bleached and healthy corals on all four reefs were spatially clustered. Comparative analyses of data from sUAS imagery and in situ diver surveys found as much as 14% difference in coral cover values between survey methods, depending on the size of the reef and area surveyed. When comparing the abundance of unhealthy coral (paled and bleached) between sUAS and in situ diver surveys, we found differences in cover from 1 to 49%, depending on the depth of in situ surveys, the percent of reef area covered with sUAS surveys and patchiness of the bleaching response. This study demonstrates the effective use of sUAS surveys for assessing the spatial dynamics of coral bleaching at colony-scale resolutions across entire patch reefs and evaluates the complementarity of data from both sUAS and in situ diver surveys to more accurately characterize the spatial ecology of coral communities on reef flats and slopes.
  • Source:
    Coral Reefs, 7: 373–387
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    CC BY
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