Preserving the future of our oceans through underwater mapping

The Schmidt Ocean Institute is giving policymakers the data they need to protect crucial underwater habitats. CNET's Now What series learns how that's happening.

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Andy Altman is a producer covering all things science and tech. He led production on CNET's award-winning limited documentary series Hacking the Apocalypse. He also created and co-hosts our video series What the Future.
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Andy Altman
2 min read

June 8 is World Ocean Day, and it's not hyperbole that we're killing our planet's seas. For years, scientists have been telling us that climate change and our addiction to plastic are directly responsible for the decline in ocean health. That's possibly most evident at Australia's famed Great Barrier Reef.

A study published in October found that about half the reef has died since the 1990s, largely because of record-breaking temperatures. Key to the survival of the reef (and others like it) is data. That's where the Schmidt Ocean Institute comes in, a nonprofit using advanced technology to map the ocean floors. We spoke with the Institute's Dr. Carlie Wiener. You can watch the interview in the video above.

Diver swimming by coral and tropical fish.

A diver at the Great Barrier Reef, off the shore of Queensland, Australia.

Bob Halstead/Getty Images

"We're able to characterize or understand environments." says Wiener. "That information is made publicly available so that ocean policy makers can better understand and create boundaries for protected areas and for regulations."

Schmidt scientists sail the world on a research vessel called the Falkor, equipped with a wealth of scientific gear, including echosounders, a blimp for aerial observations, and a remotely operated vehicle named SuBastian. Capable of diving as deep as 4,500 meters, SuBastian features several high-definition video cameras and is designed to be modular, which lets operators customize the proprietary ROV for each mission.


The Falkor was a German fisheries ship built in 1981 and retrofitted in 2012.

Schmidt Ocean Institute

It was through those cameras last month that people all over the world watched live as Schmidt scientists explored one of their most significant discoveries: a 500-meter tall coral reef that's part of the Great Barrier Reef. It was the first to be discovered there in over 120 years. "We knew we had found something, but we didn't know what it was going to look like," Wiener said. "So we were all very excited about the dive."

Because of the reef's height, scientists were able to observe how the different systems living within it changed at different depths. They "have deep corals growing on them, up to the shallower 30-, 40-meter depths that had schools of fish and sharks and incredible healthy coral," Wiener said.


A fish spotted on the newly discovered 500-meter tall reef.

Schmidt Ocean Institute

It's from coral that scientists hope they can learn how to protect our oceans. In particular, Schmidt scientists are interested in ancient corals that they say contain crucial information from the past. Researchers can extract that data, including ocean temperature and currents. "We use that information to model for the future," said Wiener, "so we can better understand what the impacts of a warming climate are on our oceans."