Comment: World Seagrass Day and the role of Geo-data to protect our oceans

Engineers, always at the forefront of technological innovation, are uniquely positioned to contribute to the conservation and restoration of seagrass ecosystems, says Dr Pooja Mahapatra, global climate solutions lead, Fugro Ahead of World Seagrass Day.

Seagrasses are incredibly efficient in trapping and storing carbon
Seagrasses are incredibly efficient in trapping and storing carbon - iStock

The United Nations has recognised 1st March as World Seagrass Day, reflecting a growing global effort to raise awareness about the critical role seagrass meadows play in our oceans.

Engineers, at the forefront of technological innovation, are uniquely positioned to contribute to the conservation and restoration of seagrass ecosystems. In this article, we’ll explore how they can use Geo-data and hydrographic technology to diagnose, understand and ultimately preserve seagrass habitats.

Seagrass meadows: Climate change mitigation and biodiversity hotspots

First, we need to understand what we are trying to protect. Seagrasses are submerged plants that form dense underwater meadows, acting as a vital component of coastal ecosystems. These meadows play a crucial role in mitigating climate change by sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Seagrasses are incredibly efficient in trapping and storing carbon. According to the WWF, they capture carbon up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests, and account for more than 10 per cent of the total ocean carbon storage, despite covering only 0.2 per cent of the seafloor. This makes them one of the most effective natural solutions to combat climate change.

Furthermore, seagrass meadows function as biodiversity hotspots, providing a habitat for a diverse array of marine life. These ecosystems support various species of fish, crustaceans, and mollusks, serving as nurseries for juvenile marine organisms. The intricate structure of seagrass meadows offers protection and food sources, fostering the growth of numerous marine species. Preserving and restoring seagrass habitats is, therefore, crucial not only for climate change mitigation but also for maintaining marine biodiversity.

Role of Geo-data in seabed diagnosis

Despite their tremendous value, Pew Charitable Trusts has reported that only around 20 per cent of global seagrass has been mapped. To effectively conserve and restore seagrass meadows, engineers are turning to cutting-edge Geo-data and hydrographic technology. These tools enable a comprehensive understanding of the seabed, allowing for precise assessment of seagrass health, distribution, and environmental factors influencing their wellbeing.

Geo-data, including satellite imagery, remote sensing, and sonar technology, play a pivotal role in mapping and monitoring seagrass meadows. High-resolution satellite imagery provides a bird's-eye view of coastal areas globally, helping scientists and engineers to identify seagrass distribution patterns and changes over time, up to around 1x optical visibility (Secchi depth). Airborne lidar bathymetry helps to more accurately characterise the seagrass over large areas, delivering up to 3x optical visibility. And sonar technology (e.g. vessel-borne multibeam echosounding) allows for detailed mapping even beyond this visibility, offering insights into the topography of the seabed and the health of seagrass ecosystems.

Informing global seagrass restoration projects

Engineers armed with Geo-data can contribute significantly to global seagrass restoration initiatives. Understanding the current state of seagrass meadows, identifying areas of decline, and monitoring the success of restoration efforts become achievable through advanced mapping and diagnostic tools.

Geo-data provides critical information for designing and implementing restoration projects, guiding engineers in selecting suitable sites for transplantation and rehabilitation. The ability to monitor and evaluate the progress of these projects over time ensures adaptive management strategies, optimising the chances of successful seagrass restoration.

The future of ocean science for marine conservation

As engineers continue to innovate, the future of marine conservation lies in the development of even more advanced technologies.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms can enhance the analysis of Geo-data, providing real-time monitoring and predictive modelling for seagrass ecosystems. And autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) equipped with advanced (e.g. hyperspectral) sensors can navigate challenging underwater terrains, collecting data that is crucial for understanding the dynamics and health of seagrass meadows.

Collaboration between engineers, marine scientists, and policymakers will be essential for developing sustainable practices that balance human activities with the conservation of seagrass ecosystems. This interdisciplinary approach will ultimately shape the future of ocean science, ensuring the preservation of marine environments for generations to come.

Seagrasses are often overlooked, but they play a crucial role in both climate change mitigation and ecosystem conservation. With advanced technology at their fingertips, engineers can now play a vital role in preserving these natural habitats.

Dr Pooja Mahapatra, global climate solutions lead, Fugro