Help NASA save the ocean’s corals by playing a new video game

The new game will help NASA find new ways of mapping coral reefs. (Image: NASA)

In an effort to save our coral reefs, and thus helping to save the planet, NASA is calling on video gamers and citizen scientists to assist them in mapping coral reefs around the world.

In the past few years, the Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley has been developing new ways to peer below an ocean’s surface using “fluid-lensing” cameras. Mounted on drones or aircraft, the cameras have assisted the agency on expeditions to Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and elsewhere to collect 3D images of the ocean floor, including corals, algae, and seagrass. However, the data alone is not enough to help them gather the whole story of what is happening to corals, so they are reaching out to the public for help.

The data from the public’s help will be processed by a neural network called NeMO-Net, or the Neural Multi-Modal Observation and Training Network. The program allows players to identify and classify corals using these 3D images while virtually traveling the ocean on their own research vessel, the Nautilus.

On each “dive,” players interact with real NASA data, learning about the different kinds of corals that lie on the shallow ocean floor while highlighting where they appear in the imagery. Aboard their virtual research vessel, players will be able to track their progress, earn badges, read through the game’s field guide, and access educational videos about life on the seafloor.

“NeMO-Net leverages the most powerful force on this planet: not a fancy camera or a supercomputer, but people,” said principal investigator Ved Chirayath. “Anyone, even a first-grader, can play this game and sort through these data to help us map one of the most beautiful forms of life we know of.”

Coral reefs occupy less than 0.1% of the world’s ocean area, but provide a home for at least 25 percent of all marine species (Image: Pixabay)

As they play the game, players’ actions help train NASA’s Pleiades supercomputer at Ames to recognize corals from any image of the ocean floor, even those taken with less powerful instruments. The supercomputer “learns” from the coral classifications players make by hand, using machine learning techniques to classify on its own.

The hope is that data gathered from the game will help researchers find new ways to preserve coral reefs. A new study from James Cook University’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies recorded severe bleaching on the Great Barrier reefs during offshore dives in February and March. The study showed that some reefs had 90 percent of their shallow water corals bleached.

NASA is touting the game as both a learning experience along with being an important research tool. The more people who play NeMO-NET, they say, the more accurate Pleiades’ mapping abilities will become. After it has been able to accurately classify corals from low-resolution data included in the game, the supercomputer will be able to map out the world’s corals at an unprecedented resolution. With that map, NASA says scientists can better understand what is happening to corals and find ways to preserve them.

So while you’re currently stuck in your house under quarantine, why not help save the world while you’re at it?

You can play NeMO-NET on an iPad.

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