Sep. 25, 2012 at 11:42 PM ET
Thousands of images from Australia's Great Barrier Reef and other coral locales are being stitched together into an eye-popping array of 360-degree panoramas for Google Maps' Street View feature — but this million-dollar-plus project isn't just about pretty pictures. It's about sharing the wonders and the woes of the world's coral reefs with people around the globe.
"This will allow the 99.9 percent of the population who have never been diving to go on a virtual dive for the first time," said Richard Vevers, project director for the Catlin Seaview Survey.
In partnership with Google, the Seaview Survey has been mounting a series of expeditions to capture high-resolution imagery of the Great Barrier Reef and other coral reef locales. It's sponsored by Catlin Group Ltd., a global insurance group. The project went through a preview phase back in February, and since then, it has continued to ramp up. Even before the official unveiling, the Seaview Survey has gained more than 1.4 million fans on Google+.
"Now we are actually in full expedition mode," Vevers said. To celebrate Wednesday's official kickoff, the survey is staging its first public real-time dive at the Great Barrier Reef via a Google+ Hangout at 1:30 p.m. ET. It'll be the middle of the night in Australia, but it'll be getting toward midday at the Blue Ocean Film Festival in Monterey, Calif., where Vever and other Seaview Survey organizers are hanging out this week.
Here are some of the 360-degree, Street View-style goodies that are already available via Google Maps:
Vevers and his colleagues aim to take 50,000 shallow-reef pictures, using a specially designed SVII camera. When all those images are stitched together into a continuous skein, the 360-degree panoramas will let users navigate their own way through one long virtual Google Maps dive. There'll also be a deep-reef survey, conducted using picture-snapping robots.
Scientists plan to analyze the photos using image-recognition software to get a quick read on coral reef health. That's a crucial issue for the decades ahead. Half of the ocean's coral communities have been lost over the past 40 years, said the survey's chief scientist, Ove Hoegh-Guldburg of the University of Queensland's Global Change Institute. The decline is due to a variety of causes, ranging from coastal water quality to overfishing to ocean warming and acidification, he said.
"The evidence of these changes is there, but people outside the scientific community don't understand the significance of those changes," Hoegh-Guldburg told me. "If we're going to tackle these global issues, we need everyone on the planet to understand what we are in danger of losing, and what we can do to stop the decline."
He said the Seaview Survey's biggest benefit will be to give people a greater appreciation of the world's coral reefs, whether they're Australian business executives or Russian grandmothers.
Sharing the seas' wonders
The Seaview Survey aims to conduct regular expeditions that can be shared via Hangouts and other live events. All the scientific data will be made public via an online Global Reef Record database, Hoegh-Guldburg said. He's also looking into ways to enlist volunteers to analyze coral reef pictures, an idea that's taken from the citizen-science playbooks for Zooniverse and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The survey is due to focus on the Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea is due to run until the end of December, and then it'll move on to other locations around the globe, including Hawaii, the Philippines and Bermuda. Hoegh-Guldburg said the survey's tools and techniques are designed to be adapted easily for a wide range of coral reef settings — including countries that haven't been able to assess their own coral reefs.
"Many of these countries know that their reefs are in trouble, but they don't know how much they're losing, or where they're losing the most," Hoegh-Guldburg said. "This can help them prioritize. If you don't prioritize, it's very hard to get traction."
The way he sees it, the Catlin Seaview Survey is coming just in time.
"Everybody is waking up to the realization that this is a critical decade," Hoegh-Guldburg said. "We're making decisions that could haunt us for hundreds of years if we don't get them right. It's now or never."
More Google Street View goodies:
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.