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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 January 2006, 08:55 GMT
Sensors watch Barrier Reef coral
By Jake Krausmann
Cairns, Australia

Great Barrier Reef
The sensors can inform scientists about changes in the coral
With the ecology of coral reefs around the globe increasingly under pressure, scientists on Australia's Great Barrier Reef are establishing a network of sensors to better understand this beautiful part of the underwater world.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science (Aims) is working with James Cook University on a project called Digital Skins.

Smart sensors, developed originally for use in nuclear power stations, are placed in the ocean and also in water catchments on the mainland.

They are able to communicate with each other to monitor events such as coral bleaching as they happen.

"One of our problems is that we tend to monitor after things happen, and so what we see is not so much the cause as the effect," said Scott Bainbridge, technology and data manager with Aims.

"A good example is coral bleaching," he told the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

"It becomes hot, we see corals going white, we then start measuring. It's all over. What we need is continuous monitoring of these systems."

Shared computing

Each sensor in the skin has its own numerical address and operating system. Using a global position system, the sensors know exactly where they are. Parameters such as salinity, temperature and nutrient levels are measured.

Scott Bainbridge, Australian Institute of Marine Science
These high-speed networks that we have now allow us to use resources that may exist over any number of places
Scott Bainbridge, Australian Institute of Marine Science
Communicating with the sensors is a challenge, particularly for those sensors located out on the reef.

Using a technique that was discovered by the British during World War II, microwave signals are sent along the surface of the ocean.

Initial tests have seen data sent as far as 70km (43.5 miles) in one hop.

The final link in the chain is grid computing. All these sensors create terabytes of data every day.

High-speed links allow the various institutions to share their computing power.

"These high-speed networks that we have now allow us to use resources that may exist over any number of places," said Mr Bainbridge.

"The systems are smart enough to know what resources they have. When they get bogged down, they can call in more resources.

"We can throw a job at a system, and that system can then decide where it actually gets run."

With 20% of the world's coral reefs already damaged and a further 50% under threat, the knowledge gained from the project could have profound implications for the future of coral around the globe.

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