Technology Advancements Bring Coral Reefs into Focus

Researchers use tools that pair science and communication, enhancing their research and the expanding its impact.

Photo of Coral Reef Model (Image Courtesy of Dr. John Burns, via  Sketchfab )

Photo of Coral Reef Model (Image Courtesy of Dr. John Burns, via Sketchfab)

Scientific experiments’ impact on society is often dependent on researcher’s or journalist’s ability to disseminate experimental results to diverse audiences. Communicating complex information presents interdisciplinary challenges that both scientists and storytellers must overcome. Let’s face it, science is dense! Without translating results into common language, the importance of profound research often gets overshadowed by jargon. When the facts are lost in translation, everyone loses, especially in coral reef conservation.


Though hundreds of millions of people around the world depend on coral reefs for food, protection, economic revenue, and recreation, many also remain disconnected from the adverse effects we, as humans, have on reefs. That’s because getting to the ocean is challenging. Truly experiencing it, and seeing what lies beneath the ocean’s masking surface, requires money, equipment, and/or technical training that most people don’t have.


Surprisingly, marine scientists aren’t immune to these limitations either. Though they study the oceans, they face the same challenges getting there as everyone else. Needless to say, that can make research challenging and expensive—hence why we know more about space than we do our oceans! As a result, some methods of conducting underwater research have remained primitive compared to what is done on land.


Pair logistic obstacles with the fact that relatively few people experience the oceans firsthand, and we have ourselves a science communication headache! Why should people care if they can’t see what’s going on down there? Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but can any amount of narrative truly describe the beauty and destruction that is taking place in our oceans?

Thankfully, we live in an era of innovation. Technology is rapidly helping pave the path between science and public outreach.  One such tool is drastically improving scientists understanding of coral reef dynamics, while allowing non-scientists to dive into the oceans, as well.

Photo of Coral Reef Model (Image Courtesy of Dr. John Burns, via  Sketchfab )

Photo of Coral Reef Model (Image Courtesy of Dr. John Burns, via Sketchfab)

Coral reef scientist, Dr. John Burns, uses three-dimensional technology to create models of coral reef structure. By taking numerous of photos of the reef, Burns can stitch the images into a 3D model, which he then uses to quantify structural metrics that were previously unattainable using traditional methods. Many other researchers have since dove into 3D technology, seeing the drastic improvement it has on research quality and efficiency.

The same models these researchers use to quantify reef dynamics, are conveniently a great tool for immersing non-scientists in coral reef ecosystems. Researchers can upload their 3D files to allow others to scroll around a real coral reef. Add in a virtual reality headset, and anyone can actually experience the reef, just as it appeared to Burns or other scientists. 3D technology makes the oceans accessible, eliminating the largest hurdle in communicating our need to protect them. These scientists are bringing coral reefs into focus, which connects non-scientists to the underwater world.

Take a look at the 3D models from Dr. Burns research, here. For the full experience, you can even view them in a virtual reality headset!