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Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center

USGS Coral Reef Project

Breaking Down Reefs, Building Up Beaches

On the remote western coast of Australia lies a UNESCO World Heritage Site above and below the sea. Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and University of Western Australia convened here at Ningaloo Reef and Jurabi Coastal Reserve to embark on the most extensive study EVER done into how coral reefs shape our coasts.
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Transcript

CAPTIONS running on the video: On the remote western coast of Australia lies a UNESCO World Heritage Site above and below the sea. Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and University of Western Australia convened here at Ningaloo Reef and Jurabi Coastal Reserve to embark on the most extensive study EVER done into how coral reefs shape our coasts.

[Intro starts with kangaroo hopping down a mountain, to a shot of the coast and lettuce coral, to Ningaloo’s location on a map]

It’s important to know because...

Curt Storlazzi: How do those reefs maintain shorelines in the face of both climate change and sea-level rise?

To figure that out, the team set 90 sensors in 44 places to cover about a square mile of this World Heritage Site, which is Australia’s largest fringing reef.

[Underwater shots of carrying gear and placing on the reef.]

Ryan Lowe: We are measuring waves, currents, water levels variation. And they have a lot of instrumentation to measure how much sediment is being transported in the water column, as well as at the beds.

[panning shot of tripod, and gear on the bottom]

Though decades of research tell us how waves and currents act when it’s a sandy bottom, we don’t really know the physics of what happens when they hit a large coral reef. The reef and its shape can radically transform waves and currents and how they move sand from the reef to the shore. Coral reefs break down over time, and that rubble makes up these sandy beaches. But how does the sand get there? Understanding those patterns will give Australians great insight into the protective role of reefs, and it will help USGS forecast what could happen to America’s fringing reefs. Without the reef’s influence, Ningaloo would not even have its beautiful white sandy beaches.

[shots of waves breaking over the reef, and an animation of where rubble travels on the reef. Still images of different types of reef, along with aerial video of an American reef, to Australian backdrop and beach]

The first challenge: shipping hundreds of pieces of equipment thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean. It took about five days to assemble everything.

[Gear loaded up in the back, and some panning time-lapse shots of putting together the tripods over several days (even next to those cooking at a BBQ).]

Jeff Hansen: The tripods were looking at the individual sand ripples to figure out if that is a mechanism of sand migrating across the lagoon to the shoreline.

The stainless steel tripods weighed about 350 pounds after strapping on all the monitoring tools, including cameras to capture the shifting seabed.

[A tripod is loaded on a truck and loaded off a boat and video shows moving sand in a ripple.]

Using inflatable boats, small research vessels, and the power of human swimmers, the team took about a week to place all the instruments in water ranging from thigh high to nearly 70 feet deep. Working in the pounding surf zone, with tiger sharks swimming near the gear, was not the fun part.

[loading an inflatable boat in the surf zone, a diver jumping off a boat, and Jeff swimming near the surface, deploying gear overboard to hand off to divers, to a shot of a wave hitting the camera to Jeff swimming through the surf zone, fade into a tiger shark.]

Jeff: Buckley has been making me swim too much...

[panning shot to team working behind their computers, to shots of Ningaloo above and below sea level, video of fish swimming through the reef, to fisherman casting their line along the shoreline, to a closing shot of a grouper swimming.]

After about a month, they’ve collected more data than they could ever crunch. So, they’ll make all of it publically available for others wanting to know how reefs function in other ways. With big changes to our oceans, reefs will likely be a focus for many years to come. After all, they provide essential coastal protection and food for hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

If we lose the coral reefs, what else do we lose?

Credits:

Thank you to:
USGS and WMA for providing all video and still footage
Tiger shark photo, Albert Kok, Wikimedia Creative Commons 3.0
Music by Ketsa (Son of the Widow), CC license and Podington Bear (Dimmy), creative commons license 3.0

Produced by Amy West

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URL: https://coralreefs.wr.usgs.gov/ReefsToBeaches.html
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