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Native knowledge

January 10, 2023

Blending ancestral gifts, Indigenous roots and science to protect the oceans

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the winter 2023 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

Cliff Kapono is looking out onto Honoli‘i Beach on the east side of Hawaii’s Big Island, and the water is brown.

That’s not unusual — brown water has occurred on this coastline for thousands of years. But it can be a threat to coral reefs. When sediment, often due to runoff from heavy rain, gets into the water, it blocks sunlight from reaching reefs. It can even smother coral, leading to coral bleaching and potentially coral death.

Centuries of brown water, you might think, would have smothered any coral here long ago. Yet somehow, a reef exists — an anomaly Kapono noticed while surfing.

Kapono, an analytical chemist and an assistant professor in Arizona State University's School of Social Transformation and School of Life Sciences, and a faculty member at the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, isn’t the kind of researcher who spends all his time in the lab. He is also a professional surfer and a Hilo native of Hawai‘i, as his people spell and refer to their homeland. Those experiences, combined with his scientific education, give him a unique perspective on the places he’s trying to protect. 

“What I’ve noticed from surfing this wave just outside of town is despite having constant brown water throughout the year, there’s a brilliant reef that exists out there,” he says. “Reef and coral species that are only found here in Hawai‘i, Indigenous coral communities.”

Other scientists who don’t surf those waters may have never encountered that reef, one that the scientific literature suggests couldn’t exist. But Kapono isn’t like other scientists. A professional surfer, a journalist and an Indigenous Hawaiian, Kapono is not just an advocate for the melding of Western science with Indigenous knowledge or for getting into nature and using storytelling to further his scientific work. He is inherently a living blend of all those things.

View of ocean and coastline in Hawaii from above

In Hilo, Hawaii, ASU’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science uses nine labs to research coastal and marine sustainability. There’s also a coastal marine grad school program and ASU Prep Digital, which partners with Kamehameha Schools to provide education tech for K–12. Other partnerships, like ASU’s support of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, amplify Indigenous peoples’ work on the islands. ASU also leads the Core Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Adaptation Partnerships program for the Pacific in Honolulu. Photo by Josh Soskin

Analyzing coral reefs

Through his research, Kapono is trying to figure out why that reef in those silty waters is still alive. His Honoli‘i Project, recipient of a National Science Foundation grant, involves taking samples of that coral — diving down under the water while holding his breath, not with the aid of a scuba tank, like conventional scientists might do — to analyze them in a lab. 

Kapono is an analytical chemist, a title that means, in his words, that he “investigates different molecules that exist in and around us.” He’s trained in a technology called mass spectrometry, an instrument that can identify and characterize molecules we can’t see with our eyes — think testing for pesticides in food, or drugs in urine. 

“I just use these instruments to take an unbiased image of what’s in, say, a glass of water, or what’s on top of your chair, or what’s in your mouth,” Kapono says. “An analytical chemist just looks and analyzes. It’s very surfer style before you catch a wave. You’re just checking things out. ... And when you just sit and watch, you start to find different patterns. You start to find different trends.”

If there’s recently been a storm, or if there’s coastal development, “You start to see the change in this molecular flow, and then you can start to form correlations and ask better questions of, ‘How am I impacting the natural world?’ and ‘How’s the natural world impacting me?’” he says. 

By looking at the molecules found on those corals, he’ll see how they change or respond to heavy rain and sediment, giving insight into how they survive.

“We have ancestral stories that celebrate the coral reef as our oldest grandmother,” Kapono says, “so it’s a project founded in Indigenous wisdom, supported by our athletic ability to surf on it, and the storyline is community driven.”

Man diving under ocean

Pro surfer, chemist and Indigenous Hawaiian Cliff Kapono among the coral reefs near Hilo. Photo by Sarah Lee

Telling science through stories 

Stories are essential to how Kapono does his scientific work — both creating new stories to help people connect to nature and science and sharing Indigenous stories that have fostered his own connection. 

“It’s weird how it’s not very critical to the science industry, and that’s why I feel there’s an opportunity to bring some of that communication in a fresh and contemporary youthful way to science,” he says. 

Through his work with the MEGA Lab, a multi-institutional consortium currently made up of staff from ASU and the University of Hawaii, he’s helping foster both solutions for how to protect the ocean and also stories about that work.

“More of the surface of Mars has been mapped than the bottom of the sea,” Kapono explains in a MEGA Lab video about mapping the reef underneath the famous surfing wave, Nakurukurumailani, called Cloudbreak, in Fiji. “How are you supposed to take care of something when you don’t even know what it looks like?”

“We have ancestral stories that celebrate the coral reef as our oldest grandmother, so it’s a project founded in Indigenous wisdom, supported by our athletic ability to surf on it, and the storyline is community driven.”

— Cliff Kopono

“Stories do lots of things for us,” says Bryan Brayboy, director of ASU’s Center for Indian Education. “They help us think about how we might view the world. They help us understand what our realities are. They help us think about what knowledges are there. We have origin stories that tell us how it is we came into the world and then how we be in the world. So almost all of our stories have some value proponents tied into them that are life lessons and guidance for us.”

Seeing how Kapono thinks about science and stories, and how he disrupts conventional norms, Brayboy feels connected to him — and excited about how his ways of doing things will make ASU better.   

“Cliff is a real chemist, there’s no doubt about that,” Brayboy says, “but he disrupts narrow viewpoints of what it means to be a chemist by infusing chemistry with particular knowledge systems, whether it’s the stories he’s retelling, or whether it’s the stories he’s creating through film, or what he knows as a surfer.”

Two researchers on a boat

Cliff Kapono (right) is a faculty advisor to geography PhD candidate Kailey Pascoe, who also is part of MEGA Lab. Photo by Josh Soskin

Bringing Indigenous knowledge to ASU

Western science is a toolkit for understanding the world, but it’s only a couple of hundred years old. In contrast, Indigenous people settled the Hawaiian Islands around A.D. 400. 

“It’s not just storytelling that persisted through those 1,600 years, but detailed knowledge of how to manage an ecosystem for its future,” says Greg Asner, director of ASU’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science.

Western science alone will not be the answer to our planet’s problems, Asner says. It’s a piece of it, he says, and another piece is not only Indigenous knowledge, but also the Indigenous perspective to connect with nature and reach people. It’s why he’s focused on building a faculty that, he says, “does not treat Indigenous knowledge and Western science as two things that have to come together, but already blend them (as Kapono does).”

After hearing how his partner, Indigenous scientist Haunani Kane, then an assistant professor at ASU, felt about the university, Kapono decided to accept the offer to join the faculty. 

In school, Kapono felt he had to separate the disparate parts of himself. He was hesitant to enter back into a formal institution, but Kane had shared with him how ASU provides an opportunity to bring the blend of science and Indigenous knowledge to the institution — and help amplify it even more to the wider world. ASU leadership, including Asner and Brayboy, among others, listened to his hesitations and were willing to take a chance on a new way of education, while still allowing him his career as a professional surfer, which made him feel comfortable joining the university.

Bringing in Indigenous knowledge systems is not exactly a new way of education, though. 

“It’s an old way, a way before the colonization of all these spaces,” Kapono says. “Before we were told we have to stop speaking wind language and ocean language and tree language.”

“It’s not just storytelling that has persisted through those 1,600 years, but detailed knowledge of how to manage an ecosystem for its future.”

— Greg Asner

Kapono still has that old-way connection to the world and the environment, like through surfing, which he says has been in his family for more than 90 generations. 

“In my family, surfing was always seen as a gift; it’s something that was given to me by my father, and it was given to him by his family,” he says, “and surfing is very important to Hawai‘ian culture and identity.”

Kapono explains that Indigenous knowledge isn’t just in learning how to take care of a place; it’s a specific way of approaching learning. 

“How do we accept knowledge? How do we give knowledge? How do we perpetuate knowledge? And what does it mean to even be a body or a being that can receive knowledge?” he says. “These are all philosophical and intrapersonal types of conversations that we can have while we’re talking about sea level rise or coral bleaching.”

It’s a more holistic approach, he adds, that allows students to feel there’s a bigger picture to their work than writing a paper or finding “the next cure.”

“It’s this idea that a cure actually is a form of knowledge that we can provide further in time, similar to how Indigenous people think seven generations in the future for the actions of today,” he says. 

He hopes that way of thinking empowers people, including his ASU students both online and in person. 

“It gives them some expressions of what it means to connect to other people and to the planet,” Kapono says. “And if they don’t speak their Indigenous language, then maybe we can speak science language. Science, I feel, is a language for all.”

4 ways to make a difference today

Not sure how you can help the oceans? Implement these steps from Cliff Kapono.

1. Get out into nature. “Even if it’s five minutes a day of walking outside and listening to birds, feeling the wind and watching where the sun is, that’s super important to do.”

2. Think about the Indigenous stories that exist already. “There’s so much history of environmental protection through the Indigenous.”

3. Don’t be too critical of yourself. “It’s hard to go no plastic, have zero waste and not use a car. Come in knowing this is a marathon, not a sprint, and forgive yourself upfront.” 

4. Make incremental changes, like skipping plastic straws. “You’re starting to use this environmentally conscious muscle that’s maybe out of shape, and you can start to think about ‘How do I reduce my plastic consumption?,’ ‘How do I reduce my waste?’ and ‘How do I think about alternative forms of energy consumption?’”

Story by Kristin Toussaint, the staff editor of the Impact section at Fast Company. She was previously a senior news reporter at Metro in New York City. Top photos by Josh Soskin and Sarah Lee

New study reveals tourists love Hawaiian coral reefs just a little too much

Researchers combine social media with aerial mapping of sea floor to find tourism negatively impacts coral reefs

January 9, 2023

Coral reefs are vibrant ecosystems for marine life and provide vital environmental benefits for humanity, such as storm wave mitigation, bountiful fish stocks and ocean-based livelihoods. They are also a global attraction for tourists, drawing millions of visitors every year and billions of dollars in tourism revenue.

However, reef ecosystems are also as fragile as they are beautiful. Coral reefs are swiftly and steadily declining due to the combined effects of global warming and local human stressors. A new study by Arizona State University and Princeton University provides insights into the local impacts of tourist visitation on live coral cover, as well as the draw reefs can have for coastal visitation. Tourists fill a Hawaiian beach. Hawaiian coral reefs are popular tourist sites. This is cause for concern, as highly visited coral reefs are negatively impacted by elevated pollution, infrastructure and development, as well as on-reef visitation and the physical damages accrued through recreating tourists. Photo by Greg Asner Download Full Image

The study, published Jan. 9 in the journal Nature Sustainability, provides novel evidence that live coral reef cover is both an attraction for and victim of tourists at a large scale, raising complex trade-offs between environment and the economy.

Even though tourism revenue is a boon to the economy and can benefit reef preservation efforts, when unmanaged, increased tourism also negatively impacts the health of coral reefs directly, both through tourism-related development and pollution, as well as on-reef activities such as swimming, scuba diving and snorkeling.

“We took the world's first live coral maps and combined them with the power of social media and data analytics to derive wholly new information on the interaction between people and reefs,” said Greg Asner, co-author on the study and director of the ASU Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory.

“The results were astonishing to see at such a large geographic scale and yet also corroborative at the local scales in which some communities have voiced significant concern about coral reef tourism,” Asner said.

Coastal tourism is a multibillion-dollar industry and will increasingly feature in the future use of marine resources,” said Bing Lin, a doctoral student at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs and lead author of the study. “It is only through an adequate understanding of tourism’s large-scale impacts on reef ecosystems that we can appropriately pinpoint pathways to make it more sustainable."

The research team created unique, high-resolution datasets collected at the archipelago scale across the state of Hawaii, a prime coastal tourism hotspot. To determine coastal visitation rates, Lin web-scraped hundreds of thousands of Instagram posts to quantify both on-reef and overall coastal visitation. To quantify live coral cover, the authors used a high-resolution airborne mapping and a machine learning procedure to map the seafloor, a method developed by Asner and colleagues. Lin then obtained additional information from the Ocean Tipping Points project and the Hawaii Statewide GIS Program on various metrics of site accessibility, human activity and water conditions to determine the relationship between tourist visitation and live coral cover across hundreds of coastal sites in Hawaii.

Plane flying over a coastline.

ASU researchers used high-resolution airborne mapping and a machine learning procedure to map the Hawaiian sea floor. This image shows the ASU Global Airborne Observatory in action. Photo by ASU

They found that high-quality coral reefs are popular tourist sites for both overall and on-reef specific visitation. At the most highly visited sites, coral reefs were also doubly at risk from tourism. They are indirectly impacted by the elevated pollution and infrastructure development it brings and directly impacted by on-reef visitation and the physical damages accrued through recreating tourists.

These findings provide new insights into the role of local human activities in impacting coral reef health, a finding only possible through the high-resolution, meter-scale mapping methods used in this study.

“Whether it's through our airborne program in regions like Hawaii or via our global reef monitoring program, we are constantly reminded that negative local-scale impacts are outpacing climate change-related impacts on coral reefs,” Asner said. 

“Local stressors to the world’s reefs are often overshadowed by the large, looming threat of global climate change and subsequent coral bleaching. However, our research underscores the importance of localized stressors in also contributing to coral decline,” Lin said.

This study also highlights the importance of both strong reef-protecting policies and coral restoration measures, especially at popular tourist sites across Hawaii and beyond. Higher rates of on-reef visitation occur when there is better reef quality, site accessibility and water quality. This suggests that potential synergies also exist in promoting stronger coastal management practices that can simultaneously improve both reef quality and revenues generated from tourism.

This study was supported through funding from the High Meadows Foundation and the Lenfest Ocean Program of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Keely Swan with Princeton University contributed to this article.

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations, ASU Knowledge Enterprise


New study shows policies designed for land use can also protect coral reefs

December 12, 2022

Earth’s coral reef ecosystems continue to be exposed to human stressors such as overfishing and pollution, placing these habitats at greater risk of extinction. Arizona State University researchers are finding actionable pathways to protect coral reefs in an unexpected place: existing policy focusing on land. 

Untapped policy avenues to protect coral reef ecosystems,” a paper published Dec. 2 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), explores how the use of current legal policies and procedures aimed at drinking water, freshwater and emergency management could preserve coral reefs. The paper was written in collaboration with the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo.  Bird's-eye view of coral reef. Researchers pointed out pre-existing policies that could assist in coral reef preservation. Photo courtesy ASU Global Airborne Observatory Download Full Image

“There are very immediate ways that existing laws can be applied to coral reefs, and that often isn’t happening,” said Rachel Carlson, lead author of the paper and affiliate scientist with the ASU Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory. “This paper was published in part to increase understanding of how laws that are mainly focused on the land can work to protect coral reefs in the future.”

Carlson knows firsthand how long it can take to enact environmental laws. As a previous employee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., she worked on a variety of freshwater laws. When she transitioned from land conservation to coral reef research, however, she found that implementing policy she had worked on seemed to stay exclusively on land. 

Greg Asner, director of ASU's Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science and senior author of the article, said stronger communication could improve implementation of existing policy in reef protection.

“There is a huge gap between coral reef scientists and conservationists and the entire land-based policy sector,” Asner said. “This gap exists even in places where land directly touches the ocean.” 

He said the Clean Water Act is a good example of how current policy is underutilized. In one possible scenario highlighted in the paper, states across the country could classify waterways with the “designated use” of supporting coral reefs under the Clean Water Act. This would allow water quality goals to be “directly tailored to the biological thresholds of corals,” according to the paper. 

The researchers point directly at the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act as examples of existing policies that could be applied in various ways for coral protection. Other existing programs in the U.S. that could be used to protect coral reefs are the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s flood insurance and restoration programs and nonpoint source management programs. 

While the article highlights U.S. policies, Carlson said it also includes many global examples, giving the article an international audience. She hopes the paper urges coral conservationists across the globe to leverage existing policy where appropriate to ensure coral reef futures. 

“I think coral reef conservation is seen sometimes as something that belongs only in communities that have reefs, but it really does touch us all,” she said.

Carlson said significant biomedical research has been done on the backs of coral reef ecosystems, and a large portion of global food security, especially in marginalized countries, rely on these ecosystems. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, about 25% of the ocean’s fish depend on healthy coral reefs. 

“Even though climate change is happening, local actions can dramatically affect coral resilience,” Carlson said. “If we can act in ways to minimize local impacts on reefs, such as decreasing pollution through some of these existing policies, we can have an impact on how the corals can respond to these global issues.” 

Katelyn Reinhart

Communications specialist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory

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This imaginative tech is transforming conservation

November 14, 2022

Conservation is a call to protect and restore life on our planet, and the need is urgent. But the scientists who guide this work are limited by the amount of ground they can cover. At Arizona State University’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, researchers are expanding their reach — and their senses — with labs that fly, drones that swim, cameras that orbit and other imaginative technology to study ecosystems around the world.

The center, a unit of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, leads environmental research that helps communities adapt to and address the effects of global environmental change.

“To do something at a scale beyond your visual, temporal or programmatic reach requires technology,” says Greg Asner, who directs the center. “It’s not the answer to conservation, but you won’t get the conservation done without it.”

photo of interior of GAO shows two front-facing chairs, two chairs facing large monitors and a copper sensor mount in the back

Step inside the Global Airborne Observatory plane and you’ll see a carbon fiber interior with computer screens on one wall behind the pilot and co-pilot chairs, a supercomputer hard drive the size of a small filing cabinet, and in the back a giant copper cylinder on a rolling, pneumatic mount that holds all the sensor heads. Photo courtesy of Greg Asner

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s … no, wait, it is a plane

The Global Airborne Observatory is a Dornier 228 airplane. Formerly a 21-seater, it has been gutted and crammed with an array of scanners and supercomputers, making it a high-tech hub for environmental science.

As the plane scans regions of the Earth below, it gathers a slew of measurements and uses artificial intelligence to get a picture of an ecosystem’s health.

Asner and his team help nations identify areas with the greatest variety of life, called biodiversity, to decide where to center conservation efforts.

“We discovered those with the airborne observatory, and then many of those became new protected areas — new national parks, for example,” says Asner, who is also a professor in the School of Ocean Futures.

Since joining ASU in 2019, he has focused much of his effort on mapping the world’s coral reefs for the Allan Coral Atlas. The project measures not just where reefs are, but also their health and the surrounding environmental conditions. This data gives governments and conservation groups guidance on where to set aside protected marine areas and where to focus resources.

>>RELATED: Read more about how Allen Coral Atlas tracks reef threats and drives ocean sustainability

illustration of GAO showing sensors, supercomputer and control panels inside. The plane flies over water and scans for high-res images, 3D maps and chemical signatures.

The Global Airborne Observatory takes three main types of measurements: 3D images for mapping, “hyperspectral” images for chemical signatures, and ultra-high-resolution images for detailed visuals. Illustration by Shireen Dooling

The plane takes three main types of measurements. The first, 3D imaging, uses proprietary laser technology to see beneath the tops of trees or the water’s surface all the way to the forest or ocean floor, and all the structures and life-forms in between.

It also takes “hyperspectral” images, which go beyond visible wavelengths of light to capture those across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. From these images, the team can tell what chemicals are present, which they use to measure oil spills or chemical leaks.

The third type of data is ultra-high-resolution images. If the chemical scans reveal a methane leak in an agricultural area, for example, the high-res camera can zoom in to see exactly which cattle paddock it’s coming from.

Saddle up, satellites

In addition to flying for the Allen Coral Atlas project, Asner is using the plane to prepare for an upcoming project called Carbon Mapper in partnership with Planet, an organization that provides daily satellite data. The project will allow researchers to see the day-by-day changes happening in ecosystems all over Earth.

Carbon Mapper’s two satellites, which are expected to launch in August 2023, have some of the same technology on board as the plane. Before the launch, the plane is flying over the U.S. to gather sample data. This data will supplement future satellite data as well as train Carbon Mapper’s machine-learning software to better analyze what it finds.

Once the satellites are in operation, Carbon Mapper will observe methane and carbon dioxide emissions, land use and agricultural pollution, and coastal water quality. It will also begin a new stage for the Allen Coral Atlas team, who will use the newer technology to improve their coral maps.

photo of ohia tree in bloom

The Hawaiian ohia tree is vulnerable to disease, but the Spectranomics research project may help conservationists track the spread of disease and find resistant tree populations. Photo courtesy of Robin Martin

Sensing some chemistry here

Robin Martin is the brains behind the Global Airborne Observatory’s ability to detect the chemicals in an environment based on spectral imaging. Through her research project, Spectranomics, she found an amazing second use for this information. She can tell plant and coral species apart based on their unique chemical signatures. This lets her see which species are living in a certain area.

Megan Seely, an ASU geography graduate student, is using Spectranomics to tell apart different varieties of ohia, a tree that grows in Hawaii. She hopes to map the spread of a disease called rapid ohia death to find out if some types of ohia are more resistant than others.

“Spectranomics was developed to expand our knowledge of how remote sensing properties, particularly spectra, measure the underlying chemistry that has evolved through time,” says Martin, an associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and a core faculty member of the center.

Martin had to do a lot of groundwork before the observatory plane was able to do its remote sensing from the sky. To develop this method, she sampled tropical trees, ground up their leaves in the lab, measured 23 chemical traits from each sample, and then used statistical analysis to match those traits to spectral signatures that the plane can recognize. Her lab has archived over 10,000 tree species.

“One of the advantages of being able to use remote sensing is that you can take measurements in places that you can’t physically get to, and you can also look at patterns over much larger areas, which then reveal more about the landscape than if you’re walking around measuring plots, for example,” she says.

In the future, she will be able to tap into Carbon Mapper’s sensing power to take measurements more frequently than she can with the plane.

>>RELATED: Watch Asner and research collaborator Martin in a new YouTube Originals documentary about leaders who are addressing the planet’s environmental crisis

Grad student checks drone equipment on a boat

Engineering graduate student Aravind Adhith Pandian Saravanakumaran checks drone equipment on an ocean field trip during the Bermuda Institute of Oceanic Sciences’ Mid-Atlantic Robotics IN Education (MARINE) program. Photo courtesy of Jnaneshwar Das

Seaworthy robot crew

Jnaneshwar Das, director of the Distributed Robotic Exploration and Mapping Systems (DREAMS) Labbuilds teams of autonomous bots and drones that gather environmental data. As a core faculty member in the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, he is developing underwater drones and other robots to analyze the ocean floor in collaboration with Asner and Martin.

Typically, they need divers to take mapping equipment underwater to calibrate the plane’s measurements. Using drones that learn from scientists and collaborate with them means more reef coverage and less required diving time.

“Technology can make us more efficient and can kind of expand our senses. It helps us to do dull and dangerous things,” says Das, who is also an assistant research professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. “There’s a symbiosis that’s happening.”

Since the project’s beginnings as a sketch of an underwater drone on a napkin, it has grown into a veritable crew of seafaring bots, including the underwater drone, small flying drones, trebuchet-launched cameras and a robotic boat that ferries all of them over the water.

Last summer, DREAMS Lab collaborated with the Bermuda Institute of Oceanic Sciences (BIOS) to create an educational course for Bermudian youths through the Mid-Atlantic Robotics IN Education (MARINE) program. BIOS announced a partnership with ASU last year and is now part of the Global Futures Laboratory.

Two ASU students from the lab spent part of their summer in Bermuda testing the DREAMS Lab equipment in the ocean and using it to introduce marine technology to students from the MARINE program.

Rodney Staggers Jr., now an engineering alumnus, and Aravind Adhith Pandian Saravanakumaran, an engineering graduate student, worked together on building and testing the drones in Arizona so they could withstand the ocean’s extreme conditions. Saravanakumaran focused on the “brains” of the drones, the automation software that guides them, while Staggers concentrated on the “bodies” by designing their durable hardware. Throughout the process, they learned from each other’s specialties and gained an appreciation for what engineering has to offer the planet.

satellite image of tributary flowing into sea, with illustration of phytoplankton, sediment and colored dissolved organic matter

Satellites and machine learning help ASU researcher Jiwei Li gather information about water quality by measuring aspects like cloudiness, colored dissolved organic matter (CDOM) and the chlorophyll present in phytoplankton. Image courtesy of Jiwei Li

The change of tides

Jiwei Li uses satellite images and machine learning to study shallow water quality. Li is part of the center’s core faculty and is an assistant professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Shallow water is not as widely studied as deep ocean water, but it’s vital to the planet’s health. It is home to precious coral reefs, carbon-capturing seagrass and other aquatic wildlife, and it’s often a place where the land’s nutrients and pollutants flow into the water.

Thomas Ingalls is a geological sciences graduate student working in Li’s lab. He sees shallow water as an important resource for nations seeking to lower their carbon emissions. That’s because these aquatic environments are also good at storing carbon.

By gathering millions of shallow water spectral images from satellites around the world, Li’s team creates regional mosaic maps. Machine learning helps turn that data into information about the water's quality by measuring aspects like cloudiness, amount of dissolved organic matter and amount of the photosynthesis pigment chlorophyll a. They also map coral reefs and monitor their health in collaboration with the Allen Coral Atlas project.

“The water quality and turbidity are especially dynamic. It’s not like a forest that doesn’t change much in one or two years. Water might change day by day,” Li says. “We need to use as many satellites as possible to increase the chances that we observe the water conditions.”

The Carbon Mapper satellites will be able to see over 50 times as many spectral bands as traditional satellites, promising a wealth of data. The technology will boost Li and Ingalls’ ability to detect water quality, carbon content, microbe species, seagrasses and pollution sources.

Knowledge makes the best policy

The Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science doesn’t stop at using its tech for research. A defining trait of the center is its goal to turn its findings into action, including helping to create informed policies.

Part of that process involves closing the gap between policymakers and experts such as Indigenous communities and scientists.

“In conservation research, there are traditional knowledges that come from people conserving and utilizing their areas for many generations,” Martin says. “Technology brings numbers to what is already known by those communities, but it acts as a way to translate information. It can give a visual picture that is sometimes more helpful to when you want to go to a policymaker and explain why we need to protect an area.”

Li adds, “Sometimes the people using the technology don’t have a clear sense that what they can do can actually help people in policymaking. And policymakers don’t know what the technology side can give them. The Allen Coral Atlas is an example of a beautiful bridge that connects both.”

The Allen Coral Atlas has helped nations’ leaders understand how to meet their goals for the 30 by 30 initiative, an agreement by over 100 countries that aims to protect 30% of Earth’s land and ocean by 2030. And it’s only one of many efforts at the center aiming for action and better policy. The Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean Division has used Li’s satellite work to plan its coral conservation efforts in that region. Martin’s use of Spectranomics in Peru led to the creation of a new national park. Seely is collaborating with the U.S. Forest Service and Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources to help protect ohia. And the Global Airborne Observatory has helped the state of Hawaii act to protect its coral reefs.

While technology has advanced researchers’ ability to understand the environment, the need for this information continues to grow beyond what they can provide. Even planes can only travel so far in a day.

The satellite technology from Carbon Mapper will be the next big advancement to help close this gap, giving policymakers around the world more immediate access to the knowledge they need and making an environmentally sustainable future possible all the sooner.

The research efforts described in this article are funded in part by Vulcan Inc., Pew Trust, Avatar Alliance Foundation, Dalio Philanthropies, and the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation.

Top photo: Alumnus Rodney Staggers Jr. and grad student Aravind Adhith Pandian Saravanakumaran stand on a boat in Bermuda and launch their small robotic boat, which ferries several other pieces of equipment.

Mikala Kass

Communications Specialist , ASU Knowledge Enterprise


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ASU climate scientists featured in YouTube film with Pope Francis

October 12, 2022

Greg Asner, Robin Martin speak about collective action needed to tackle the climate crisis

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2022 year in review.

The world is under threat. 

A warming climate, disappearing rainforests and dying corals impact populations around the world, and the solutions to these challenges will require members of society to come together. 

A new YouTube Originals documentary titled "The Letter: A Message For Our Earth" centers around the Laudato Si’ — an encyclical letter written by Pope Francis in 2015 to the world, calling for collective action to tackle the environmental crisis and find solutions.

The documentary features voices representing Indigenous communities, people living in poverty, young people and the science community, and follows their journey to Rome to meet with the pope and share their stories on the planetary crisis and the toll it’s taking on nature and people.

Arizona State University scientists and husband-and-wife duo Greg Asner, director of ASU’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, and Robin Martin, associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, were chosen to represent the global scientific community for the film. In it, they share their latest research mapping underwater heat waves that are threatening coral reef ecosystems. 

"The Letter: A Message For Our Earth" premiered on YouTube Originals on Oct. 4 and is available free to stream online

ASU News talked to Asner and Martin about the documentary, conservation and the role the scientific community plays to generate action to preserve the future of our planet.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Greg Asner and Robin Martin. Photo courtesy Laudato Si' Organization

Question: Can you tell me about your role in the film?

Robin Martin: Our role was to represent the unseen wildlife. The film focused on our research with coral reefs, but it's symbolic of all wildlife. They wanted to have one individual for each of the elements discussed in the Laudato Si’. 

Greg Asner: In the film, there was one 14-year-old girl representing the youth, a chief from the Amazon representing the Indigenous voice and Arouna Kandé, a climate refugee, representing the poor. Robin and I were a pair of voices for wildlife and biodiversity, and throughout the process, the two became interchangeable.

Q: What is the importance of having all these groups represented in the fight against climate change? 

Asner: Science cannot solve the climate change crisis alone. As scientists, we measure, provide a compass and provide tools and tool kits, but all people at all levels are needed to tackle this. Scientists know this already, including the most experienced veteran researchers. People cannot just sit back and hope that science will solve the climate crisis or hope that some technological solution will solve it. We need to act and work together. 

We need other factors. We need to work with the fact that Indigenous people are stewarding 80% of what's left in the natural world right now, that the youth are who we need to invest in, to train and empower, and then the poor — we're not going to get anywhere unless we address poverty. This mixture of action and solutions has to happen; this is all known.

Q: It seems as if there’s been a call to act for decades now, but how do we spur change? Where should time and resources be invested? 

Asner: Yes, we’ve heard that message before. What I'm saying is it's got to be taken to scale right away. This needs to be a solutions-oriented story.

As scientists, and I don't mean just Robin and I, but the entire science community, we have generated a huge number of tools — whether they're natural capital tools, like reforestation tools, or reef restoration and carbon reduction tools. A thousand tools have been generated, talked about, presented, iterated and are ready to implement. But we have got to get people working in this space to implement the science. Science is not the answer alone, but it's the nail and hammer of how to help get us there. 

Martin: We can't continue down past track periods. What's important in the next steps is that we do it thoughtfully and don't think that technology is going to solve it all. We have to bond together, force the solutions and make them happen. We have the tools to do it, we just have to do it now.

Q: The documentary highlights your work assessing the impact of climate change on coral reef ecosystems. How much time do we have before shallow reefs are lost?

Asner: The reason why coral reefs are highlighted here is that coral reefs are the world’s biome that is going to disappear first. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report very starkly says if we don't do something, the reefs are not going to make it to 2030 or 2040. It's happening now. 

That ecosystem is going to collapse in my career. So the time element of this is really important. It's not abstract in any way. If we get to 2 degrees celsius average temperature rise, we'll lose nearly all shallow coral reefs worldwide.

Q: Speaking on a panel during the Vatican movie premiere last week, Hoesung Lee, chair of the IPCC, celebrated both of you for your participation in film and your biodiversity research. In our fight against climate change, what do you think the role of scientists at ASU and beyond should be moving forward?  

Asner: To me, to have Dr. Lee there was a huge relief because he is the absolute top of the supreme court of climate change science. We at ASU aren't a religious organization by any means. We're a public institution, but our scientists are participating far outside of the realm to generate action and solutions, and even IPCC has acknowledged that. 

I hope that scientists can find the time and take the risk to work way outside of their science community. Working with a major religious organization — in this case, working with Pope Francis and the Catholic church — is one massive example of that. We didn't go small, we went big.

Martin: The pope is a conduit not just to Catholics, but someone who's a cultural and spiritual leader far outside of science that people listen to and respect. That is also what's important about Laudato Si', is that it was written for everyone. That was part of the reason why Greg and I decided to do this particular intervention — it's a call to everyone to help save the Earth.  

Top image: Greg Asner and Robin Martin meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican. Image courtesy Laudato Si' Organization

David Rozul

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications


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ASU's Allen Coral Atlas launches improved tool to uncover reef threats, support conservation measures

October 11, 2022

Reef Threats system monitors both human drivers of coral loss and reef response

The loss of coral reefs is a serious threat to the health of marine ecosystems around the world. 

Rising ocean temperatures and coastal pollution are among many environmental stressors that contribute to the degradation of critical coral reef environments. Additional threats including deforestation, agricultural pollutants and land development are damaging coastal marine zones at an alarming rate.

Today, the Allen Coral Atlas at Arizona State University is launching a novel turbidity monitoring tool, which is part of a new toolkit called “Reef Threats.” The Reef Threats system provides global, real-time, integrated data on bleaching, ocean temperature and turbidity. Turbidity is the "muck," mostly from neighboring land use, that can harm coastal coral habitats. 

The expanded capability of the atlas’s monitoring system will provide crucial information for conservation managers around the world tasked with deciding where and how to best protect, support and save coral reefs.

“Each Allen Coral Atlas monitoring tool we create offers new insight into how conditions are changing on coral reefs,” says Greg Asner, director of ASU’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science with the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory.

“The new Reef Threats toolkit will link changes in ocean temperature, turbidity and coral bleaching to coral loss and reef change over time. This is important because now we’ll see both the human drivers and the reef response with increasing breadth and detail. We’re hopeful that innovative mitigation measures will emerge for coral reefs worldwide,” Asner says.

Video (no audio) shows dynamic water quality data on the Jamaican coastline. Credit: Allen Coral Atlas 

Brianna Bambic leads the Allen Coral Atlas engagement team by facilitating workshops and field opportunities to use data from the atlas in real time. Working directly with researchers, students, governments and coastal managers in reef communities around the world, Bambic says the new tool will make a global impact in reef management.

“In a time of increasing human disturbance both on land and in our oceans, dynamic turbidity monitoring at this scale will drastically improve time and efficiency, as well as prioritize areas for conservation,” says Bambic, senior manager of global engagement with the ASU Center for Global Discovery and Conservation. “These new data can help local communities make more informed decisions about where to restore reefs and mangroves, and it will help identify sources of pollution caused by coastal land development and urban runoff.”

Having a visual, real-time tool provides an immediate focus on conservation action, and can help reduce the time it takes to complete a report. For example, the Ministry of Environment of Sri Lanka is creating an Environmentally Sensitive Areas map of Sri Lanka. The atlas data will dramatically cut down the time and resources it takes to compile their reports, thus more time can be used for mitigation and conservation action.

Bambic says with real-time feedback to see where the coast is being disturbed, coastal communities can monitor if and when their restoration efforts are making a difference. 

What is ocean turbidity?

Turbid water is cloudy and heavy with sediment, contaminants and pollutants stemming from land damage and disturbances. Coastal ocean turbidity is an accepted index of water quality that has been widely applied in field-based water quality monitoring programs. For example, the United States Geological Survey and National Water Quality Program use this index.

However, field-based point recordings have extremely limited spatial coverage. As a result, it is challenging to scale field data to large regions to capture the extent, temporal variation and sources of turbid waters. 

Saving coral reefs requires the identification and reduction of local stressors and the cumulative impacts caused by human activities, particularly overfishing, coastal water pollution and land development.

“The muck smothers corals that generate habitat for other marine species and for humans. The improved turbidity monitor uses satellite imagery taken on a regular basis worldwide,” Asner says. “The tool uses European Sentinel-2 data, and while it does come with some satellite-based artifacts, it’s important to push our monitoring boundaries to provide timely, detailed information about the health of coral reefs.”

The Allen Coral Atlas uses satellite imagery, advanced analytics and global collaboration to create maps of and monitor threats to marine ecosystems’ benthic and geomorphic data in unprecedented detail. The atlas is a collaborative project led by the ASU Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science in partnership with Vulcan Inc., Planet Inc., the University of Queensland and the Coral Reef Alliance.

Top photo: Rising ocean temperatures and coastal pollution are among many environmental stressors that contribute to the degradation of critical coral reef environments. Photo courtey Greg Asner

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations , ASU Knowledge Enterprise


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An ocean of opportunity

September 15, 2022

ASU School of Ocean Futures is the world's newest home for learning, research focused on the planet's ocean ecosystems

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2022 year in review.

A new school dedicated to the study of the ocean and its ecosystems, and it is based in the desert?

Something so improbable and dynamic could only happen at Arizona State University and the ever-forward-looking Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory.

The laboratory's College of Global Futures announces the launch of its fourth school, which advances learning, discovery and partnerships that shape a thriving global future: the School of Ocean Futures.

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Peter Schlosser

“We live on a water planet, with 70% of Earth’s surface covered by water and its largest biome residing in the world's oceans, thus it is imperative to include the oceans in a holistic view of the world we strive to live on,” said Peter Schlosser, vice president and vice provost of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory.

“The Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory’s mission is to explore pathways into a future that offers opportunities for the coming generations on a healthy planet. The School of Ocean Futures will be the Global Futures Laboratory’s home for providing students the opportunity to study the present and imagine the future of our oceans, preparing them for careers dedicated to making the critical decisions required to keep our world in balance,” he said. 

The School of Ocean Futures will be the planet’s newest academic home for studying, teaching and developing innovative solutions about the current and future states of the ocean, and will address challenges our oceans face due to increasing pressure from human activities.

It joins three other pioneering schools in ASU’s College of Global Futures: the School for the Future of Innovation in Society; the School of Sustainability; and the School of Complex Adaptive Systems.

This unprecedented college equips its students and faculty with the training and tools to develop their lifelong career pursuits, while shaping a thriving global future for all of Earth’s inhabitants and systems.

Scientists and scholars in the School of Ocean Futures will serve local and global communities through exploration, discovery, knowledge development at the intersections of our oceans and society.

“We are at the cusp of a new era of ocean exploration and are truly excited about the opportunities that the new School of Ocean Futures brings,” said Susanne Neuer, founding director and professor at the School of Ocean Futures and a senior Global Futures scientist. “This new school brings together ocean scientists and teachers from across the globe to train and guide our students in making unique contributions to our understanding of the present and future roles of the oceans in our global ecosystems and climate.

"A new generation of students from ASU and from across the globe will thus be able to include the oceans in their understanding of the world around them and will be able to find the solutions necessary to survive on our rapidly changing planet.”    

Oceans are not just the world’s largest ecosystems, they are also one of the leading indicators of our planetary health and wellness. From the condition of coastal ecosystems to the robustness of marine populations, from fluctuations of sea temperatures that drive weather systems and sea levels to the sustenance of human populations that live along and depend on the seas, oceans have long been keepers and mysteries of solutions, according to ecologist and exploratory researcher Greg Asner, one of the school’s first appointed faculty.

“Whether you live along a coast or far inland, each of us is inextricably tied to oceans that provide us with enormous cultural, ecological and economic benefits,” said Asner, who is also director of the ASU Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science. “Our oceans are changing faster and challenging us more than ever before, so the solutions our new school will pursue cannot come too soon.”

The School of Ocean Futures combines research and teaching facilities in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans with cutting-edge research facilities within the Rob and Melani Walton Center for Planetary Health, home of the College of Global Futures on ASU’s Tempe campus. The Walton Center holds more than 70,000 square feet of laboratory space and collaborative environments to encourage transdisciplinary learning and exploration.

For its Pacific base, ASU’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation is located in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii, and houses computational and chemical labs, offices, conference rooms and field operations space. Hawaii is also home to the ASU Allen Coral Atlas laboratory, a network of field sites and land-based partners linking research and outreach to map the world’s coral reefs, and the Pacific RISA program in Honolulu that supports Pacific island and coastal communities in adapting to impacts of climate change.

The Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences is ASU’s research and learning presence in the Atlantic, established through a partnership announced last year. The institute brings more than 120 years of excellence in ocean and atmospheric science research and a rich tradition of university-level teaching.

With a campus of classrooms, laboratories, dormitories and vessels, including the flagship 170-foot R/V Atlantic Explorer, the institute allows scientists and scholars to venture into the northernmost coral reefs in the Atlantic and the surrounding Sargasso Sea, one of the planet’s most biodiverse open-ocean ecosystems.

The institute also operates two of the world’s longest-running time-series programs: Hydrostation ‘S’, which has provided a continuous record of the ocean’s physical properties since 1954, and the Oceanic Flux Program, which has yielded unprecedented insights into deep ocean particle fluxes since 1978.

“Bermuda’s convenient access to deep water was one of the factors that led to the establishment of a year-round marine research and educational institution on the island,” said Bill Curry, president and CEO of the institute. “Many ‘firsts’ in ocean science can be traced back to Bermuda and (the institute). Now, as part of the School of Ocean Futures, we look forward to supporting many more ‘firsts’ as ASU students and researchers from around the world help usher in a new age of ocean innovation and discovery.”

“We truly are in a unique place to bring together scientists working in both oceans and to offer experiential learning and research opportunities to a new generation of ocean scientists,” Neuer said. 

Research programs for the School of Ocean Futures are currently underway with courses and degree programs launching in fall 2024. For more information, visit the School of Ocean Futures website.

Jason Franz, assistant director of strategic communication for the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, contributed to this story.

Top photo: The Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences research vessel Rumline is anchored off of a coral reef offshore of Bermuda for research. Photo courtesy the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory/BIOS

ASU scientists study the response of tropical forests to climate change

Findings could help inform forest management

May 17, 2022

Beneath green canopies of towering trees, vivid colors flash by on outstretched wings, while underfoot, a small green tree frog leaps onto a large leaf. In the distance, a chimpanzee reaches for a fruit hanging above his head. This is a tropical forest, rich with life and teeming with biodiversity.

While covering only about 6% of the Earth’s surface, tropical forests support more than 80% of the world’s documented species. And these ecosystems are one of the oldest on the planet. Yet human development and a changing climate threaten the forests’ ability to function properly.  Chart with illustrations depicting global predictions of functional diversity across tropical and subtropical, dry and moist broadleaf forests. Global predictions of functional diversity across tropical and subtropical, dry and moist broadleaf forests. Reprinted from “Functional susceptibility of tropical forests to climate change,” by J. A.Gutiérrez, 2022, Nature Ecology and Evolution. Download Full Image

To protect and restore tropical rainforests, Arizona State University researchers joined a study led by Oxford University to uncover critical information about the forests and their ability to respond to the impacts of climate change. 

The study looked at functional diversity, or the range of functional traits that an ecosystem needs to operate. In the study, published May 16 in Nature Ecology and Evolution, the team of researchers mapped out the functional diversity of forests. The findings demonstrate that drier forests are less functionally diverse, meaning that they may be less resilient in the face of increasing droughts.

“For thousands of trees distributed all across the tropics, we collected information of certain characteristics that allow them to respond to changes in the environment, such as increasing droughts, which we call ‘functional traits,'” said Jesús Aguirre-Gutiérrez, lead author of the study and senior researcher with the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. “Using this information, we built models to understand if and how the diversity of functional traits increases the resilience of forests to climate change.”

Spanning 74 sites and four continents, the team used local climate data for the past 50 years combined with data on 16 different plant traits sampled from 2,461 individual trees. This combination of data allowed the team to gain a big picture view of the forest changes, specifically how the forests’ responses to climate change differ based on the dryness of the ecosystem. Overall, drier tropical forests are less functionally diverse and more functionally redundant — many species perform the same roles. 

“This research informs conservation efforts by identifying regions more susceptible to climate change, allowing managers and policymakers to take more targeted and educated action,” said Greg Asner, co-author of the study and director of the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science. “We must discover where and how to invest for long term ecosystem resilience.”

Makenna Flynn

Communications Specialist, Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science

Scientists map living corals for first time before, after marine heat wave

Findings could help manage and build a resilient network of coral reefs

May 2, 2022

As the world sees rising ocean temperatures, it will also see more cases of coral bleaching. When corals bleach, they become more vulnerable to other stressors such as water pollution.

However, many reefs harbor corals that persist despite warming oceans. Coral Bleaching in Hawaii. Example of coral bleaching in Hawaii. Download Full Image

Unraveling the complex issue of coral bleaching and its impact on their survival or death may be key to conserving coral reefs — ecosystems that approximately half a billion people around the world rely on for food, jobs, recreation and coastline protection.

For the first time, scientists have mapped the location of living corals before and after a major marine heat wave. In the new study, research shows where corals are surviving despite rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change. The study also finds that coastal development and water pollution negatively affect coral reefs. 

In the study, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Arizona State University scientists with the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory reveal that different corals and environments influence the likelihood of their survival when ocean temperatures rise. The findings also demonstrate that advanced remote sensing technologies provide an opportunity to scale up reef monitoring like never before.

From its home in the Hawaiian Islands, ASU researchers with the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science took to the sky on the Global Airborne Observatory (GAO). The aircraft is equipped with advanced spectrometers that map ecosystems both on land and beneath the ocean surface. With these maps, the researchers can assess changes in coastal ecosystems over time.

“Repeat coral mapping with the GAO revealed how Hawaii’s coral reefs responded to the 2019 mass bleaching event,” said Greg Asner, lead author of the study and director of the ASU Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science. “We discovered coral ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’ And these winning corals are associated with cleaner water and less coastal development despite elevated water temperatures.”

When the Hawaiian Islands faced a mass bleaching event in 2019, the GAO mapped live coral cover along eight islands before the marine heat wave arrived. With these data, the researchers identified more than 10 potential coral refugia — habitats that may offer a safe haven for corals facing climate change. Among the potential refugia, there was up to 40% less coral mortality than on neighboring reefs, despite similar heat stress.

The results also indicated that reefs near heavily developed coasts are more susceptible to mortality during heat waves. When development occurs on land, the amount of pollution entering the reef ecosystem increases, creating an unfavorable environment for coral reefs already fighting to survive the warming water.

“We discovered coral ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’ And these winning corals are associated with cleaner water and less coastal development despite elevated water temperatures.”

— Greg Asner, director of the ASU Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science

“This study supports Hawaii’s Holomua: Marine 30x30 initiative by not only identifying areas impacted by ocean heat waves, but also areas of refugia,” said Brian Neilson, study co-author and head of Hawaii’s Division of Aquatic Resources. “These findings can be incorporated into management plans to aid in building a resilient network of reef regions and sustaining Hawaii’s reefs and the communities that depend on them into the future.” 

The Holomua: Marine 30x30 initiative aims to establish marine management areas across 30% of Hawaii’s nearshore waters. Coral reefs in Hawaii are integral to life on the islands, tied to culture and livelihoods. Understanding which corals are surviving is key to achieving conservation that is targeted and effective.

“Previous approaches have failed to deliver actionable interventions that might improve coral survival during heat waves or to locate places of heat wave resistance, known as coral refugia, for rapid protection,” said Asner, who is also director of the Global Airborne Observatory. “Our findings highlight the new role that coral mortality and survival monitoring can play for targeted conservation that protects more corals in our changing climate.” 

The Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science at ASU collaborated on this study with the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. The Lenfest Ocean Program of Pew Charitable Trusts supported this study.

Makenna Flynn

Communications Specialist, Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science

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ASU leaps to No. 2 globally for UN Sustainable Development Goals, retains top US spot

April 27, 2022

ASU also leads universities worldwide in categories of sustainable cities and communities, life on land and life below water in Times Higher Education ranking

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2022 year in review.

Arizona State University has been recognized as a global leader in sustainability efforts, coming in second in the world and first in the U.S. in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings released Wednesday.

The annual international publication of university rankings looks at impacts made addressing 17 specific goals aimed at achieving a better world by 2030, known as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Adopted by all 193 United Nations member states in 2015, these goals provide a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.

“Our health and the health of our planet are intertwined — each is dependent on the other. There is no us without the Earth; it’s as simple as that,” ASU President Michael Crow said. “How do we undo some of the damage that has been done? How do we redefine solutions that are useful throughout society? How do we rethink the very role of the university to secure a healthy, positive future for every creature on this planet?

“That is what we’re aiming to do here at ASU — working toward solutions that benefit all, not just an elite few, and producing the type of knowledge and connections that will help us change the present trajectory that we’re on. Because we don’t have unlimited time to right this ship. There is urgency in what we do, but also a great deal of hope.”

Video by Knowledge Enterprise

Driven by the university’s efforts on such issues as poverty and hunger, gender equality, clean water and air, and climate change, ASU made huge strides in the global ranking, signaling a new era for the university. In one year, the university went from ninth to second in the world out of 1,406 institutions from more than 100 countries, ahead of University College London, the University of Toronto and the University of Queensland, among others — and behind only Western Sydney University in Australia. The global ranking included nearly 300 more institutions this year, compared with 2021. The next highest U.S. institution on the global list is Michigan State University at No. 33.

For 2022, ASU’s score of 98.5 out of 100 points put it at No. 1 in the U.S., coming in ahead of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, Michigan State University and Penn State University. It’s the third year in a row that ASU has held the top national spot.

“At a time of multiple complex challenges, from the war in Ukraine to the climate crisis, the rapid growth of university engagement in support of the global development agenda gives me hope,” said Amanda Ellis, former UN Ambassador and co-chair of ASU’s SDG & Beyond Task Force. “I am so inspired by ASU’s growing impact and the power of our partnerships.”

Among the 17 goals, ASU ranked No. 1 in the world in three SDG categories: sustainable cities and communities; life below water; and life on land.

"Our planet is pushing back on us. We are learning that our planet is not limitless; it’s trying to tell us something through droughts, wildfires, viruses and more," said Peter Schlosser, vice president and vice provost of Global Futures. "At ASU, we are focused on shaping futures in which life can thrive on a healthy planet. We are dedicated to supporting life on Earth’s physical, biogeochemical and societal systems, and we are honored to see this work reflected in the Times Higher Education Impact ranking."

ASU’s efforts placed it in the top 10 in seven total SDGs. In addition to the three No. 1s, ASU was No. 4 in climate action, No. 6 in no poverty, No. 7 in clean water and sanitation and No. 9 in peace, justice and strong institutions.

On the university level, ASU is breaking new ground on buildings, programs, initiatives and partnership programs:

  • Rob and Melani Walton Center for Planetary Health: ASU opened its largest research facility — a new headquarters that serves as the enabler for shaping tomorrow, today. It was also home to ASU’s recent Earth Week, featuring both urgent calls to action and messages of hope including keynotes by Jane Goodall and Conservation International founder Peter Seligmann, all in recognition of the solutions being developed by the university’s researchers and global network of partners.
  • Allen Coral Atlas: Led by Greg Asner, the Allen Coral Atlas is the first global habitat tool to map the world’s tropical, shallow coral reefs. By combining satellite imagery, advanced analytics and object-based analysis, global collaboration has resulted in maps that show the marine ecosystem's benthic and geomorphic data in unprecedented detail.
  • MechanicalTree: Developed by Carbon Collect in partnership with ASU and its Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, the world’s first MechanicalTree was installed on ASU’s Tempe campus to collect carbon from the atmosphere in order to help mitigate global warming. The MechanicalTree — which was developed based on the research of ASU carbon-capture pioneer Klaus Lackner — will rise to a height of 33 feet (10 meters) to passively collect carbon from ambient air, not using energy to drive the capture. Once loaded with carbon, it will retract into a canister that is 9 feet (2.7 meters) tall, where the carbon drawn from the air is able to be stored for other uses. If widely deployed, many of these trees could have a positive impact on our planet by mitigating the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
  • ASU-Starbucks Center for the Future of People and the Planet: Building on a long-standing partnership, the ASU-Starbucks Center for the Future of People and the Planet launched to leverage ASU’s applied research, networks, expert faculty and innovation through shared aspirational commitments to the betterment of people, the planet and our global communities.
  • Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences: In October 2021, ASU’s Global Futures Lab partnered with BIOS, the premier deep-ocean observatory in the Western Hemisphere, to advance the understanding of the ocean’s contributions to Earth’s overall health and explore what is needed to secure these services into the future.
  • WE Empower UN SDG Challenge: The WE Empower UN SDG Challenge welcomed a new cohort of female entrepreneurs and leaders from around the world who are pushing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals forward through sustainable business practices.
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Dave White (left) and Michelle Schwartz represent Arizona State University at the Times Higher Education Impact Ranking 2022 announcement in Stockholm, Sweden. “Sending special thanks from Sweden to the ASU Times Higher Education Impact Rankings committee convened by Dr. Sheila Ainlay and Dr. Scott Brenden for their dedication to this effort,” White said on April 26. Photo courtesy of Dave White

Here are a half-dozen of the many other ways in which ASU is working to help people and the planet prosper:

  • The Global Carbon Removal Partnership, led by Thunderbird School of Global Management Director-General and Dean Sanjeev Khagram, is a group made up of policymakers, members of the private sector and civic society seeking to influence policy and market environments to support the rapid scale-up of carbon-removal actions. ASU is also home to the international public-private alliance New Carbon Economy Consortium, focused on harnessing innovation to drive a carbon-neutral to carbon-negative world.
  • The Connective is a consortium that is building a first-of-its-kind “smart region” for the greater Phoenix area with the Thunderbird School’s Phoenix Global Rising initiative — a multistakeholder partnership advancing Phoenix’s global capacity. With the support of Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, ASU is helping deploy equitable and scalable technology solutions that support the Valley’s goals of sustainability and improving quality of life.
  • Modular gender education training for parliamentarians and global changemakers: These videos aim to eliminate discriminatory laws against women around the world and are now used by the nearly 200 member countries of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the UN partner agencies.
  • The Decision Center for a Desert City is focused on advancing research, education and partnerships for urban water transitions through the power of data. Complementing its work is the Kyl Center for Water Policy, which promotes research, analysis, collaboration and dialogue to build consensus on sound water stewardship for Arizona and the West.
  • The Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems provides research and education options to address the integrity of the agriculture systems and the well-being of farmers, producers and providers, and to help drive policy-relevant knowledge to ensure food safety.
  • The Global SDG 5 Notification Tool, designed by ASU's Erin Carr-Jordan and implemented by the Luminosity Lab, which provides insight into country-level progress on legal gender equality with the ability to compare 190 countries at a granular level. With data on local laws provided by the World Bank, parliamentarians and others, this tool is used by the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review to hold countries accountable to their commitments.
  • The Knowledge Exchange for Resilience builds community resilience through the sharing of knowledge across sectors, driving discovery through responsive research, and supporting the development of agile solutions that enhance our shared capacity to withstand, respond and transform through both sudden shocks and long-term stresses.

Top photo: A bird’s-eye view of Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii. Photo by Greg Asner/ASU

Reporter , ASU News