Utilising the latest satellite and drone technology, CGI and conservation charity Project Seagrass have joined forces to support marine ecosystems – which are proving to be highly promising carbon sinks. By Nan Spowart

 

CLEAR waters surrounding the Scottish islands are 
helping provide information which will be used in the fight against global warming and the loss of marine biodiversity.

Images from satellites and drones are now being used to map seagrass meadows – which not only sequester carbon dioxide, but also provide valuable habitats for marine life and help combat pollution.

In the UK, it is estimated that up to 92 per cent of seagrass has been lost over the last 150 years due to industrial pollution in places like the Clyde and Forth estuaries.

Yet, while countries like Australia, the Netherlands, Sweden and the US have been working hard to restore seagrass in order to reduce their carbon footprint and boost fish stocks, little has been done in the UK until recently.

This began to change in 2013 with the establishment of Project Seagrass, a marine NGO which started in Wales and now has its Scottish base in Edinburgh. 

“It’s been estimated that Scotland holds 20% of the seagrass beds of north-west Europe and so with careful management it’s potentially a stronghold for the ecosystem,” said CEO Dr Richard Lilley. 

Initially, the aim of the charity was to spread awareness of the importance of seagrass meadows for their incredible biodiversity and global importance in supporting fisheries.

However last year their capacity to mitigate the effects of climate change helped to raise their profile, with some seagrass species globally thought to be able to sequester 20-30 times the amount of CO2 than land forests. 

As the charity has grown it has become more involved in restoration projects, specifically in the Firth of Forth and community projects in the West of Scotland, among others, to bring back these benefits to Scottish coastal waters.

As a small organisation, Project Seagrass does not have the capacity to identify all the seagrass meadows around the UK coastline and discover which have been the most damaged and are most in need of urgent restoration.

However, technology firm CGI has stepped in to provide the technology which will help map it accurately for the first time.

“It’s fantastic,” said Dr Lilley. “CGI have the capacity to look at the coastal seascape using satellites and, in collaboration with us, they will develop algorithms to help pick out the green and blue patches in the sea and identify whether they are seagrass meadows, kelp forests or ecosystems.

“To have accurate maps will be good not just for government, but for the nation as a whole because these ecosystems stabilise the seabed, improve water quality, sequester carbon and support biodiversity and commercially important fish stocks. Using the information, we can work out what restoring seagrass meadows will mean, for example, in terms of rebuilding the fisheries in the Clyde - can we enhance our nation’s wealth by putting these habitats back?”

The initial satellite data is being “ground truthed” by sending out divers and drones to check it is accurate.

This has already been carried out in the clear waters around Westray in Orkney, and the information gained will be extrapolated to other clear water sites like the Hebrides, before being refined for areas with less water clarity like the Firth of Clyde and Firth of Forth.

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SKY HIGH AMBITION: Dr Richard Lilley, left, and Associate Professor Richard Unsworth with a Project Seagrass drone.

 

 

“The potential is huge since this collaboration is also helping to build global knowledge into how to map seagrass using satellites,” said Dr Lilley. 

“As a small charity, we couldn’t begin to have access to the kind of computing power and expertise that CGI has. We have had these dreams of getting national seagrass maps but it is only through collaboration that we will be able to achieve that, especially in the short time scales we’re working to, because the next five or ten years are going to be critical.

“We are facing a biodiversity emergency and a climate emergency and unless we start taking better management of our ecosystems we are not going to be able to adapt to the challenges these present.” 

CGI is not only providing the mapping technology pro-bono but has also committed to planting 50 bags of seagrass in its first year with the charity.

Dr Jaime Reed, of CGI, said the company was excited about the project, particularly as good progress had already been made.

“What we are doing is building a system using satellite data to identify where all these patches of seagrass are,” he said. 

“Once we know what the density is, we can identify the total volume around the UK and set up a monitoring system so we can begin to understand what is happening over time.

“We can produce maps to identify where it is in a holistic way. Then we can use that to communicate with local communities and use it for education and outreach. We have made progress very quickly so it shows what can be done if you put your mind to it.”

Dr Reed added: “The other thing that is really exciting is that once we have done this analysis for the UK we can potentially do it elsewhere in the world. The coastline of the entire world is many times greater than the UK, so this is a great opportunity to develop something that we can take around the world in order for it to have a much bigger impact.”

As well as helping Project Seagrass and other conservation initiatives, CGI has its own net zero plan, aiming to be net zero in the UK by 2026 and globally by 2030.

Dr Reed said CGI was one of very few companies in the tech industry that had such an ambitious aim.

“We are going harder and faster than a lot of other big industries because we believe we have to do it as it is part of being a responsible business,” he said. “We hope that by making those kind of commitments, by doing projects like this one with Project Seagrass and providing leadership, we can encourage others to follow suit.”
www.cgi.com/uk

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Pack promotes a sea change in perception

CHILDREN are also being helped to learn about the importance of seagrass through a very successful STEM project launched by CGI during the first lockdown.

Initially created to educate and entertain the children of staff members, it was so popular that the activity packs were released online for anyone to use.

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The packs in the STEM from Home initiative tackle topical issues and give information and fun activities for children to do both online and offline.

The STEM from Home Seagrass pack explains what seagrass is and what it can do to help counteract climate change. The participants learn that the plants absorb and store large amounts of carbon dioxide, produce oxygen and are important in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss. 

The pack has a video showing children how to make their own Secchi disk. Created in 1865 by Pietro Aneglo Secchi, the device is used to measure water transparency in open bodies of water such as the ocean, lakes and rivers. 

HeraldScotland:

When lowered into water, the depth at which the black and white pattern becomes no longer visible is the point at which the measurement is taken. 

This measurement is known as the Secchi depth.

The participants learn that water transparency relates to the depth light will penetrate the water to allow photosynthesis to take place to produce oxygen and food – a key process in allowing ocean life to grow and thrive.

In this pack there is also a coding project using Pen extension blocks and x and y coordinates in Scratch to draw the locations visited by green sea turtles during their nesting time.

Children can also use Scratch to create a game to “save a shark”. The game looks at sharks’ favourite food source, as well as the impact of plastic in the water.

Pack creator Luke Kittow, of CGI, said children had responded well to it.

“Having industry insight from Project Seagrass has been great because it offers a different element to what we can provide,” said Kittow. 

“Being able to show the science behind issues has been very well received.”