The Future Of: Climate Change & Our Coral Reefs

Featuring Dr Sarah Hamylton

“The Future Of…” series asks a variety of UOW experts and researchers the same five questions, to provide insight into the potential future states of our lives, communities and world.

Dr Sarah Hamylton is a Geographer and climate change researcher in the Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health. Her BSc was in Environmental Sciences at the University of Southampton. She has Masters degrees in Marine Environmental Science, and GIS and Remote Sensing, and a PhD on Red Sea and Seychelles coral reefs from the University of Cambridge. She sits on the Council of the Australian Coral Reef Society and co-founded the Women in Coastal Geoscience and Engineering Network.

What are you researching or working on in 2018?

My work has taken me from Antarctica to the Great Barrier Reef in 2018, and that’s just the first few months! My research focuses on mapping, monitoring and modelling in coastal environments. Although my primary interest is coral reefs, I was in Antarctica earlier this year taking part in Homeward Bound, a strategic initiative that supports women with a science background to make a meaningful contribution to the world’s sustainability problems.

In June I'm taking a team of researchers from Indonesia to the central Great Barrier Reef, where I am running a training workshop on how to map reefs, islands and mangroves from satellite and drone images. While the Great Barrier Reef has about 3000 coral reefs on it, Indonesia has many thousands of coral reefs, that are influenced by a range of environmental threats including coral bleaching, dynamite fishing and poor water quality. We're working together under a regional collaboration to build practical skills that will help several Indonesian university and government institutions to map and monitor changes to their remote reefs, which represent some of the world’s most biodiverse marine environments

A part of the same trip, I'm also working with an interdisciplinary team that includes creative artists and a social scientist to compare how we use different methods and practices to express our understanding of how the reef has been impacted by climate change. This will include mapping from a drone, writing a song and poetry.

In regards to your field of study or expertise what are some of the most innovative or exciting things emerging over the next few years?

The emergence of drones as a practical tool for surveying coastal environments is very exciting! Over the last couple of decades, the fields of image processing and spatial analysis have really moved forward to support researchers in interpreting and analysing spatial patterns along coastlines. We have historically worked with satellite images, which can view objects on the ground that are 1-2 metres in size. Because drones can be flown at a lower altitude (e.g. around 30 – 60 metres high instead of orbiting in space), they generate images that can see objects in much more detail - around 2 centimetres in size.

On a coral reef, this means that individual corals can be mapped from the air, along with their collective spatial patterns. That opens up a wealth of opportunities for studying coral ecological dynamics. For example, spatial statistical methods developed by epidemiologists and criminologists can now be applied to study the dynamics of entire coral populations across reefs. While these techniques were developed to characterise the spread of diseases, or identify hotspots of crime, they can now be applied to drone images to better understand the small scale dynamics of coral bleaching, and the larger implications of climate change for coral reefs.

In regards to your field of study or expertise what are some of the things readers should be cautious/wary of over the next few years?

It has been a hard few years to be an environmental scientist witnessing the effects of climate change. Plant and animal habitats are moving, glaciers are melting and the world’s reefs have recently been hit by two back-to-back mass coral bleaching events. As a community of scientists who have been warning about these impacts for decades, it is difficult not to become despondent when our words have been met with so little response from politicians, who could have helped to encourage more sustainable practices through governance. It is a time when we need to be careful not to lose heart, and remember the reasons we became scientists in the first place. While I hope that my science makes a productive contribution to the world, I also know that I find working on coastlines enjoyable, inspiring and stimulating.

In terms of the specific work I do, spatially referenced data (i.e. information with its accompanying geographical coordinates) is becoming really common. For example, it is very easy to take photos and plot them on a map with a various mobile phone apps., or work with aerial images on platforms like Google Earth. This brings greater opportunities for spatial analysis, but these opportunities need to be taken up with caution. Spatial information has all sorts of special characteristics that means it should be analysed carefully if we are not to produce misleading results.

Where do you believe major opportunities lie for youth thinking about future career options?

In terms of making progress toward pressing twenty first century research agendas such as sustainable agriculture, health challenges like the Zika virus and global climate change, some of the biggest steps forward are likely to be made through transdisciplinary research. If I were given an opportunity to define my education again, I would follow a path that encourages me to think across a range of disciplines. For example, although artists and scientists use fundamentally different approaches to build knowledge, they have a lot to offer each other. Some of the most exciting thinkers I have met are people who have had formal training across a range of disciplinary fields.

In regards to your field of study or expertise, what is the best piece of advice you could offer to our readers?

I have crafted my own career around the activities I enjoy. These include writing, scuba diving, interacting with people, working from boats and spatial statistics. As I was working out what career I wanted to pursue, I made a conscious effort to expose myself to a range of pursuits. I then held on tightly to the ones I enjoyed, and found ways to weave them into my work. It’s been a successful approach for me. Most jobs have enough flexibility in them that this approach is possible.

In terms of science, the magical and most satisfying part of the work I do is the creative thinking necessary to address a specific problem. For example, if I want to design an analytical framework for understanding why and how corals bleach around a reef, I need to think about a practical approach to sampling from either a boat or snorkelling in the water, along with designing a statistical approach to test the significance of any variation in the data collected. Science is a really creative pursuit. It is through thinking laterally across a broad range of analytical activities that the real steps forward are made. Don’t let anybody tell you that science isn’t creative!

For more from Dr Sarah Hamylton you can visit her UOW Scholars profile, which links to her papers and publications.

Dr Hamylton also presented recently at UOW's Uni in the Brewery event. View it here