The future of coral reef monitoring

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Building 18, Fellowship Hall (and Zoom)


Saudi Arabia is undertaking an unprecedented development along its Red Sea coast, including launching multiple "GigaProjects", with ambitions to be a major ecotourism destination. At the same time, the country has committed to the highest levels of protection for the natural environment and 'regenerative tourism' approaches that will improve the quality of the targeted habitats. Of particular focus are the Kingdom's numerous coral reefs, renowned for their biodiversity. Traditional approaches for monitoring the health of coral reefs are difficult to scale up sufficiently to meet the needs of the GigaProjects and to objectively assess the success of newly implemented environmental protections. At KAUST, a multi-disciplinary, collaborative effort is underway to pioneer the "next generation" approach to understanding coral reef health. This talk will explain how the "Smart Reef" initiative brings together oceanographers, microbiologists, ecologists, AI experts, marine roboticists, geologists, modelers, environmental sensor developers, underwater communications engineers, and more. Collectively, we plan to establish a baseline of current environmental state, including coral community condition, abundance, and health. This will create a mechanism for high-resolution detection of change in various environmental indicators. The Smart Reef ultimately serves as a testbed for technologies and as a prototype that can be deployed at numerous locations around the country in a coordinated effort to understand and conserve Saudi Arabia's natural treasures in the Red Sea.



Mike received a Zoology degree from the University of Arkansas in 2001. He then attended James Cook University in Australia to pursue graduate studies in coral reef ecology, specializing in life history and ecology of butterflyfishes. He was awarded the PhD in 2007. Mike accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where he focused on larval connectivity in coral reef fishes. During his time in Woods Hole, Mike began working in the Red Sea in 2008 in partnership with a new university in Saudi Arabia - the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). Mike joined KAUST in July 2009 as a founding faculty member in the Red Sea Research Center. Mike has authored more than 300 peer-reviewed articles and 11 book chapters, and he has co-written or edited three books. His research focuses on advancing general understanding of Red Sea coral reefs and more broadly making contributions to movement ecology, which is a critical aspect of developing conservation plans in the marine environment. He is particularly interested in connectivity questions ranging from larval dispersal to large distance migrations of adult fishes.

As the Director of the RSRC since 2018, Mike has focused on harnessing the expertise of a broad range of KAUST researchers across numerous disciplines (for example, robotics experts, geologists, biologists, and more) to provide scientific knowledge of how the Red Sea can sustainably support the Kingdom's goals for growth and economic diversification.