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The Global Reef Expedition: A mission to assess the health of coral reefs around the world

26. August 2019 - 10:21
This article is part of a special Global Geneva Focus series on Oceans.

IN 2011, scientists from the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation set out on a mission to explore the remote coral reefs of the world. An international team of scientists, photographers, videographers and conservationists, as well as local leaders, were assembled to map, characterize, and evaluate coral reefs throughout the western Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. They wanted to take a snapshot of the reefs in time, to survey and map the reefs and assess their health before it was too late.

Coral reefs are in crisis. We’ve already lost half of the world’s coral reefs in the past 50 years. Current models predict that we are likely to lose most of the other half before the turn of the century. Corals are threatened by a variety of factors including global warming, ocean acidification, overfishing, pollution, development, and disease—all of which appear to be getting worse.


One of the reasons the Foundation was interested in studying coral reefs, is that they are considered a keystone ecosystem for assessing the health of the entire ocean. Although they occupy less than one quarter of one per cent of the marine environment, more than a quarter of all known marine fish species spend at least part of their lives in these delicate habitats. It is estimated that one out of every seven people around the world depends on coral reefs for food or income, so their impact on people far outstrips their relatively small size.

The grand idea behind the Global Reef Expedition is to get a baseline assessment of coral reef health around the world, and to hopefully find places resilient to change. The expedition specifically chose to explore remote reefs far from civilization, particularly those relatively free from human influence, but we also surveyed the health of reefs that were close to port and heavily fished. Comparing the health and ecological condition between remote and relatively pristine coral reefs with those that have been compromised by chronic stress from human use will enable us to identify high-priority sites for protection. Our ultimate goal is to use all of this information to create models of coral reef health and resiliency, so that we could identify places in need of protection, and those most likely to weather the forecasted coral apocalypse.

M/Y Golden Shadow and dive boat, Calcutta. Stern View.

As part of our studies, we were able to access remote reefs to conduct scientific research with the use of the Golden Shadow, a 219 ft (66.7 metres) yacht with dedicated laboratory facilities, a diving recompression chamber, and an onboard aircraft—the Golden Eye—that was used extensively for aerial surveys of coral reefs. This modern and advanced research vessel was made available to the Foundation through the generous support of His Royal Highness Prince Khaled bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia, who donated the use of his ship for the Global Reef Expedition.


Over the course of five years, our scientists nearly circumnavigated the globe on the research vessel M/Y Golden Shadow as they studied over 1,000 coral reefs in 15 countries and 97 islands on the Global Reef Expedition. Many of the reefs visited on the expedition had never been studied before. Along the way they recorded nearly 500 different species of coral, 1500 species of fish, and conducted over 11,000 surveys of what lived on the reef and covered the seafloor.

On this epic voyage we witnessed coral bleaching first-hand on pristine reefs in the Indian Ocean, explored the little-known cold-water coral reefs of the Galápagos Islands, and conducted what was likely the last survey of healthy reefs in northern reaches of the iconic Great Barrier Reef. Our first stop on the Global Reef Expedition was in The Bahamas, where we wanted to see how coral reefs were coping with the triple threats of climate change, coral disease, and loss of many of their keystone species.

Acropora abrotanoides is the dominant coral in this image. MR diver filming reef.

We then traveled to Jamaica and teamed up with local fishermen and conservation organizations to help them establish a fishing sanctuary to preserve local fisheries for current and future generations. Our research eventually took us down through the Caribbean, and across the South Pacific, where we came upon many healthy and ancient coral reefs, a giant swarm of sharks, and indigenous communities who protected their reefs with rules set forth by traditional leaders centuries ago.

In addition to conducting research, we spent time with local communities to explain our research, share our results, and listen to hear how they use the reef and what changes they have seen on the reef over their lifetimes. We brought along teachers and educators to teach local students about coral reefs, and award-winning filmmakers and photographers to capture the journey and document what we saw underwater. Nearly 200 scientists from around the world participated in the Global Reef Expedition, lending their expertise and knowledge of the local reefs.


Scientists on the expedition also mapped and surveyed the reefs down to a one-square-meter scale to better understand their health and resiliency. In the process they developed a new method to accurately map coral reefs using a combination of Earth-orbiting satellites and field observations. Last month they published the first global coral reef atlas, which contains maps of over 65,000 square kilometres (25,097 square miles) of coral reefs and surrounding habitats—by far the largest collection of high-resolution coral reef maps ever made.

Pocillipora coral and Acropora are dominant in this reef scene.

To develop the new model to accurately map coral reef and other tropical shallow-water marine habitats, scientists took data collected from extensive SCUBA surveys conducted on the Global Reef Expedition and extrapolated that information across the entire reef using ultra-high-resolution satellite imagery. By comparing the maps with video footage from cameras dropped at precise coordinates along the reef, the scientists were able to verify the accuracy of their new mapping method.

M/Y Golden Shadow with dive vessel, the Calcutta.

The high-resolution coral reef maps they created contain detailed information on the location and depth of different parts of the coral reef (such as the reef crest, fore reef, back reef, and lagoonal reef) visited on the expedition, as well as information on the size of seagrass beds and mangrove forests along the coast. All of these coastal habitats are key components of tropical coastal ecosystems and help to filter water, protect the coast from storms, and provide nursery habitat for commercial and subsistence fisheries.

Now, we have completed the fieldwork for the Global Reef Expedition and our scientists are hard at work analyzing the data. By comparing assessments of coral reef biodiversity, oceanographic conditions, and human pressures, we can reliably describe the status of coral reef health, identify major threats, and determine processes and factors that control the health and resilience of coral reef ecosystems worldwide.

A closeup image of a pink anemonefish within the tentacles of a magnificent anemone.

We are working across vast geographic scales in order to see what factors are most important to maintaining the structural integrity and health of reefs, which will be used to make predictions regarding the future health of coral reefs, including their capacity to adjust to climate change. The data will generate science-based tools and decision aids that can also be used to mitigate the threats to these life-supporting marine ecosystems.

As we continue to analyze and understand the data we collected on the Global Reef Expedition, we aim to provide applied scientific knowledge to local resource managers and relevant government officials, bridging science with management to achieve our long-term goal of ensuring health and sustainable coral reef ecosystems around the globe. With this research, we hope to provide knowledge of the critical ecosystem components that promote coral reef resilience and produce effective reef management tools that will influence policy and resource management actions urgently needed to improve and sustain the health of coral reefs around the world.

LIZ THOMPSON is Director of Communications for the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation in Annapolis, Maryland, USA. She has more than 12 years of experience in marine conservation, policy and communications and writes about the scientific research conducted aboard the Global Reef Expedition. She also promotes the Foundation’s outreach and education programmes around the world.

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International Geneva: Not just a hub but a global reality

25. August 2019 - 18:32

SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, while chatting with a group of international aid workers in Bangkok, I was asked why we had chosen Global Geneva as the title for our magazine (,particularly given that much of our content is produced by writers from all over the world.

“It’s an unusual concept,” one of them told me. “But it doesn’t seem to be about Geneva.” It’s an observation we often receive. And it usually takes a few minutes to explain why we consider the ‘Geneva’ brand so important as the world’s leading information hub for planetary themes, such as humanitarian action,climate change, human rights, conservation, health, peace and security, or world trade. And why it is so crucial to report them in a manner that makes them both inciteful and accessible to world-wide audiences, particularly young people.

On the surface, ‘international Geneva’ represents some 30 major United Nations and other international organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, World Trade Organization and the World Council of Churches, plus well over 400 non-governmental organizations ranging from the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and Interpeace to Médecins sans Frontières International and Medair.

More than a city or a region

But this does not even begin to take into account the scores of private sector companies, law firms, media groups and banks that operate internationally. Nor the hundreds (if not several thousand) of other globally-oriented players operating out of Switzerland, Lichtenstein and neighbouring border regions. And yet all are part of the ‘international Geneva’ concept. These include organizations such as the Anne Frank Foundation (See article on the Anne Frank legacy), ArtBasel and Bank of International Settlements in Basel; ETH, FIFA (See article on FIFA corruption) and the Andan Global Citizen’s Alliance in Zurich; EPFL, IMD, International Olympic Committee and the Jan Michalski Foundation in Lausanne;IUCN (See article on IUCN’s Inger Anderson) and WWF in Gland as well as Tree of Life Foundation, IBSA Foundation for Scientific Research and SwissStem Cell Foundation in Lugano.

A growing number of organizations located in neighbouring France, such as Interpol in Lyons and the Mérieux Foundation outside Annecy, consider Geneva a key focal point.

Every year, this exceptional international community hosts major conferences, workshops, cultural events, arbitration meetings or mediation retreats that attract hundreds of thousands of participants from all over the world. This is where Global Geneva is beginning to play a pivotal role.

International banks and companies overlooking the Rhone River in Geneva. (Photo: Edward Girardet) International Geneva: A knowledge vortex with global impact

As Michael Møller, until recently head of the United Nations Geneva office, points out (See Luisa Ballin’s article in the Sept-Oct. 2019 Fall  edition of Global Geneva), ‘International Geneva’ is more than just a city. It is a hub with global impact. And in many ways, the term “international Switzerland” might prove more appropriate. Regional UN hubs such as Nairobi, Vienna, Bangkok and even New York are also part of this same knowledge and operations vortex for dealing with issues such as climate change, disaster risk reduction, refugee action and conflict mediation.

Hence our decision to rely on highly diverse articles with ‘insight’ rather than ‘news’ combined with powerful story-telling based on quality and informed journalism provided by our world-wide network of over 2,000 reporters, writers, cartoonists, film-makers, photographers as well as specialists. Our aim is to help make ‘international Geneva’ issues more accessible – and engaging – to Swiss and world-wide audiences. In previous editions,for example, we have published Focus series exploring key global themes such as Geneva’s blue water wave or French water wizard for the planet, Alain Gachet),  the destruction of cultural heritage and polar regions. These are now part of our regular coverage.

In this edition, we are looking at Oceans, in particular, the impact of the earth’s steadily worsening climate crisis, an issue highlighted in one of our lead articles as “the race no one is winning.” Contributors, such as Liz Thompson of the Living Oceans’ Foundation, writes about their five-year planetary investigation by ship with scientists, journalists and students into the state of coral reefs around the world, while Elizabeth Kemf’s Letter from Florida reports on community struggles to save local cultural heritage and environment from rampant urban development, including efforts to protect the coast-line against hurricanes.

Some of our articles highlight what is being done inthe way of innovation or galvanizing expertise for possible solutions to global challenges and problems. The article by journalist William Dowell on Agora Rising examines International Switzerland’s innovative approach to real time cancer research. The essay by Danish scientist Anders Meiborn of the Lausanne-based EPFL explains a transnational Red Sea project that could help save the world’s corals. Another article by Peter Hulm looks into how Coral Vita, an entrepreneurial initiative recognized by UNEP’s Young Champion of the Earth initiative, is already providing ways of ‘recultivating’ new corals.

Telling the ‘Geneva’ story based on first-hand experiences from the field

Equally important for us is to obtain the perspective from the field based on first-hand experiences. Aid worker Louis Parkinson’s Letter from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh on how Burmese Rohingyas are struggling to survive in the world’s largest refugee camp offers a rich personal story that helps us better understand what it happening. Human rights specialist Norah Niland explores in her Letter from Sicily how the Mediterranean now represents the world’s deadliest anti-refugee wall as governments, such as Italy’s, are seeking to prevent humanitarians from doing their civic duty by criminalizing rescue operations.

Plus more unusual pieces about unusual places, notably South African reporter Peter Kenny’s look at what must be one of the world’s most architecturally bizarre capitals, Nur-Sultan (former Astana) of landlocked Kazakhstan,with its efforts to become the new ‘Geneva’ of Central Asia. Or Charles Norchi’s piece on how Switzerland – and Afghanistan – have helped enshrine the right of access for all to the oceans in modern-day international law of the sea. Or my own article on how Afghanistan’s women may offer a way of ending the country’s over 40-year-long war with Switzerland as a neutral arbiter to help bring diverse combatants to the negotiating table.

Young street vendor in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. (Photo: Louis Parkinson) Global Geneva: A leading print and online magazine on planetary issues

Ever since our first pilot edition in December, 2016, we have sought to develop Global Geneva into a trusted print and online magazine. It has been a struggle, but we are finally getting there. Numerous editors and journalists from New York and Port-au-Prince to Hong Kong and Islamabad have contributed their time – and content– while various groups and individuals, such as Swiss philanthropists Vera Hoffmann and Yann Borgstedt, and institutions such as the Alcea and Oak foundations, have provided us with grants.

Now moving into our seventh print and e-edition with a website that is increasingly drawing readers worldwide, we are emerging as International Geneva’s leading English-language publication on planetary concerns.

Youth Writes: A imaginative initiative for reaching out to young people

Critical to our global outreach is the development of our Youth Writes initiative, which kicked off in late 2018 with our Young Journalists and Writers Programme (YJWP). The purpose is not only to help young people improve their writing skills (a growing concern amongst numerous parents, teachers and university professors),but also how to discern what is credible – and what is not – in social media at a time when disinformation and false news threaten our democracies and ability to make informed decisions. (See our pilot workshop which took place in early 2019)

With 4,000 sponsored complimentary copies of Global Geneva being delivered to Swiss schools from Basel to Montreux, we launched our first young people’s journalism workshop at the ICRC Ecogia Training Centre in Versoix outside of Geneva in March.

We also started a writers’ competition for high school students, whose winners – all focusing (fact or fiction) on International Geneva themes – are scheduled to receive their awards at the Morges Book Festival 6-8 September, 2019. Depending on support, our hope is to extend this initiative world-wide, by developing educational partnerships (including working with high schools in countries such as Liberia and Sri Lanka) as a means of highlighting international Geneva and SDG themes. In this edition, we are publishing the intriguing entries of our three young writer laureates. Plus a piece in Breaking In, our section dealing with young people’s experiences in undertaking internships or volunteerships around the world.

Making our content for free worldwide – with your support

Finally, as part of Global Geneva’s business plan for the next two or three years, we have adopted an approach not unlike that of The Guardian newspaper. We wish to ensure that our content is made available as widely as possible – for free.

This includes our quality print edition (also available in e-format online), which we are finding to be crucial to our outreach strategy. More and more readers, including young people, are telling us that they enjoy the print version as it demonstrates both seriousness and quality. Many, too, say they read the print more readily than online content, which, as research institutions are increasingly demonstrating, is an ‘old school’ phenomenon that needs to be taken into account. People actually read print articles, but tend to skim through – and not necessarily absorb – online versions.

Furthermore, our print edition draws more readers to our website. However, in order to achieve an impact, and to survive, Global Geneva, which strives to be editorially independent in the public interest with critical, but solutions-oriented reporting, needs to ensure a mix of foundation grants, sponsorship, advertising, subscriptions and support membership. This coming autumn, we are launching a crowd-funding initiative, plus encouraging corporate subscriptions enabling us to make complimentary bulk copies available to companies, schools, universities and conferences. There are exciting times ahead, but our readers must also be our partners.

Editor-in-Chief, Edward Girardet – Contact:

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