Marine Science Faculty Publications

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The South China Sea is currently in a state of intense geopolitical conflict, with six countries claiming sovereignty over some or all of the area. Recently, several countries have carried out island building projects in the Spratly Islands, converting portions of coral reefs into artificial islands. Aerial photography and high resolution satellites can capture snapshots of this construction, but such data are lacking in temporal resolution and spatial scope. In contrast, lower resolution satellite sensors with regular repeat sampling allow for more rigorous assessment and monitoring of changes to the reefs and surrounding areas. Using Landsat-8 data at ≥15-m resolution, we estimated that over 15 km2 of submerged coral reef area was converted to artificial islands between June 2013 and December 2015, mostly by China. MODIS data at ≥250-m resolution were used to locate previously underreported island building activities, as well as to assess resulting in-water turbidity plumes. The combined spatial extent of observed turbidity plumes for island building activities at Mischief, Subi, and Fiery Cross Reefs was over 4,300 km2, although nearly 40% of this area was only affected once. Together, these activities represent widespread damage to coral ecosystems through physical burial as well as indirect turbidity effects.

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Scientific Reports, v. 6, art. 33194