Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, its wonders and its battle for survival, are a star attraction of the world’s latest internet sensation, Ocean in Google Earth.
Researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS) are making a major contribution of science, information and underwater images to the site – launched globally today – which is designed to enable internet users worldwide to explore more fully the two thirds of the planet covered by water.
The GBR is one of a number of focal locations chosen by Google to highlight different aspects of the ocean. Others include the Galapagos, the Antarctic, the Gulf of Mexico, Hawaii, Bermuda, the West Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.
'For each of these places they explain what's there, why it's unique, and how and why it's changing. It also highlights how humans both affect and depend upon the oceans,' says fish ecologist Professor David Bellwood of CoECRS and James Cook University. Prof Bellwood has been responsible for assembling the GBR content for the launch of the site
The Google team explain that their popular Google Earth site didn’t dive below the surface of the oceans to give users a feel for the ecosystem that dominates the planet, so they teamed up with oceans advocate Dr Sylvia Earle, scientific institutions and other bodies around the world to get users excited about the oceans.
'As the largest group of coral reef experts in the world, the Centre of Excellence was invited to help populate the GBR section with information about the reef and human impacts on it. As part of our mission is to help people be more aware of the oceans and to understand how we humans affect them, we saw this as a marvellous opportunity,' Prof Bellwood says.
'We have provided data and images, and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and others are also adding to it.'
Professor Bellwood says that one of the greatest issues facing humanity today is the lack of direct interactions between people and the natural environment, which means they cannot observe how the environment is changing and how much they affect it. 'The oceans are out of sight, and out of mind. Only fishers, scientists, tourism operators and the like really see what is happening, day to day.'
Reef - aerial
'Our hope is that, through the medium of the internet, millions of people – young people especially – will now be able to develop a better feel for what is happening to our oceans, and maybe will be inspired to visit them and see for themselves.'
Ocean in Google Earth is a feature of the most recent version of Google Earth and is available as a free download.
Professor Bellwood says that Ocean in Google Earth offers users a chance to visit different places on the GBR to sample the sorts of sea creatures and issues in each area and learn more about how the reef works. The information is presented initially in a very simple, easy-to-follow format which allows users to drill down deeper and understand some of the science behind the GBR and human effects on it.
Topics covered include acid oceans and coral bleaching, how reefs can be managed to give them the best chance of surviving global warming – as well as fascinating insights into the lives and habits of fish, sharks, seabirds, turtles, nudibranchs, octopuses, corals and other reef lifeforms.
'The GBR attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world every year. Thanks to Google Earth it will now receive millions more virtual visitors – many of whom will hopefully decide it is well worth a real visit. It is superb promotion for our greatest natural wonder.'
The new tool also allows us to present coral reef science in a clear and easily understood way that everyone will enjoy exploring. As scientists who love the fish and corals of the reef, we are delighted that this new site allows us to introduce a wider public to the things which fascinate us, and to share our understanding of them with people around the world,' he says.
More information about Ocean in Google Earth can be found at www.earth.google.com/ocean