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“Digital Reefs” awarded $5 million

Palmyra Atoll is an uninhabited coral reef ecosystem located in the central tropical Pacific. Palmyra was chosen by the WHOI team as the site for the first coral reef digital twin because a long history of research at the island has amassed a treasure trove of data and models, enabling the team to hit the ground running as they develop the project. Image credit: Michael Fox © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

September 21, 2022

Multidisciplinary effort led by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution selected by National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator Program

Woods Hole, MA – The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) $5 million to participate in NSF’s ground breaking Convergence Accelerator Program. The project, led by WHOI scientist Anne Cohen, builds the world’s first Coral Reef Digital Twin, a 4-dimensional virtual replica of a living coral reef powered by state-of-the art data and models. “Digital Reefs” will be accessible and usable by coral reef stakeholders around the world who are making critical decisions every day to manage and protect these valuable ocean ecosystems.

The Phase 2 team includes: Siemens Technology, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, and Stanford University, in addition to WHOI. Also on the team are Mote Marine Laboratory, the Marshall Islands Conservation Society, University of Guam, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Academy of Marine Research (NAMR) Taiwan, and Ebiil Society, Palau, whose major role will be to develop user-inspired modules, lead training workshops and advance the use of Digital Reefs in reef restoration.

“Globally, coral reefs support almost one billion people and are one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. But coral reefs continue to decline at an unprecedented rate, despite a surge in data, funding, and political will in the last couple of decades,” said Cohen. “We found the problem is not lack of access to data and information. It is a lack of access, by decision makers—fishermen, managers, risk assessors, government agencies—to intuitive, interactive, actionable data. Almost everyone nowadays has a cellphone, there is a lot of data out there, people just can’t use it.”

“Our goal is to facilitate universal access to data and information that right now are available to just a handful of people. Democratization of information is the only way we can truly ensure that coral reefs have a future on our planet, and Digital Reefs is how we get there,” said Cohen.

The 21st century has brought with it unprecedented challenges for coral reefs, mainly from climate change, demanding new and innovative approaches to management, conservation, and restoration. Fundamental to effective decision-making is access to science-based data, information, and decision making tools.

“As reefs around the world suffer, so do the diverse and often vulnerable coastal ecosystems and humans that depend upon them,” said Joe Pollock, Ph.D., Senior Coral Reef Resilience Scientist at TNC. “We work to empower local communities with the tools, information, and partnerships needed to better safeguard reefs and the lives and livelihoods they sustain. Digital Reefs has the potential to revolutionize reef management and restoration by providing fine-scale, actionable information in an immersive, engaging, and highly visual format.”

Digital Twins are already widely used in industry and healthcare, where exact virtual replicas of engines, railway networks, and even human bodies are used to understand and test what-if scenarios, facilitate collaboration amongst different teams, and assist with decision making. The WHOI-led project, Digital Reefs: A Globally Coordinated, Universally Accessible Digital Twin Network for the Coral Reef Blue Economy, will develop the Digital Reefs prototype of Palmyra Atoll, and apply the prototype technology to reefs in the Marshall Islands and Taiwan as a test of their scaling model to build a global Digital Reefs network.

The Coral Reef Digital Twin is a virtual representation of a real reef, with all its features, consistently updated with new data from sensors and satellites. The digital twin allows users access to the dynamic, 3-dimensional system from a laptop or cellphone anywhere in the world to get real-time the information needed for sustainable harvesting of reef resources. Image credit: Cohen Lab © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Digital Reefs translates complex data and numerical model output into a digital replica of a coral reef. Users accessing the Digital Reef from their computer or cell phone will be immersed in a dynamic 4-D visualization of currents and corals, rather than a spreadsheet of numbers, although the supporting data will be downloadable. Users can move across the reef, and scuba dive into its depths to access information about water flow, temperatures, and reef inhabitants. The Digital Reefs platform will offer users the opportunity to visualize the reef in years past, and in the future as sea level rises and the ocean warms. Decision making tools enable users to change the reef —virtually— and examine the impact of the proposed changes, such as building a hotel or dredging a channel for boat access. Stakeholders can visualize how future climate change will affect their reef and the specific areas where they fish and farm.   Restoration practitioners will be able to test which areas of the reef are optimal for restoration and to visualize larval dispersal patterns from restored areas.

“We’re in a crisis of survival for coral reefs,” said Stanford’s Steve Palumbi, “and we’re also in a crisis of data complexity. Everything about a reef is complex, so how do you make a decision about saving your local reef for your community and family when the answer is complicated? Digital Reefs takes data from the physics, biology, physiology, and ecology of a complex reef and shows you what its future is likely to be, depending on what you do, and decisions you make. We are all excited about contributing what we do best, to make this effort work.”

“Our work with NSF and WHOI highlights the boundless opportunities we now have available to us through digital twin technology,” said Virginie Maillard, Head of Siemens Technology US. "As we enter the next phase of this project, Siemens Technology will leverage its expertise in industrial digital twin to create a tangible digital twin of the coral reef that can be utilized by all, no matter background or expertise, for the greater purpose of collaboration to save our planet's marine ecosystem."

“There is a unique opportunity in offering people immersive access to underwater habitats,” said Stuart Sandin, professor of marine ecology, at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “The growth of digital data is a first step in understanding coral reefs, but the critical next step is in providing easy access to these data; the Digital Reefs project will build the tools to provide just this access.”

In September 2021, the NSF Convergence Accelerator Program launched the 2021 cohort and awarded $21 million across 28 multidisciplinary teams, focused on Phase 1 of the Track E: Networked Blue Economy and Track F: Trust & Authenticity in Communication Systems. In September 2022, NSF has made an additional $30 million investment in the Networked Blue Economy to advance use-inspired solutions addressing national-scale societal challenges. Track E: The Networked Blue Economy aims to create a smart, integrated, connected, and open ecosystem for ocean innovation, exploration, and sustainable utilization. The Track E Cohort was 16 teams in Phase 1 and is now six teams in Phase 2.

This work was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, and leveraged previous research that was supported by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation.




Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its mission is to understand the ocean and its interactions with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in fundamental and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation and operate the most extensive suite of ocean data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge to inform people and policies for a healthier planet. Learn more at

The Nature Conservancy is a global non-profit organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Informed by science and guided by traditional values and practices, we apply innovative, nature-based solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive. TNC has forged partnerships to manage 14 preserves and other sites in Hawai‘i and Palmyra Atoll, working with government, private parties, and communities to protect Hawai‘i’s and Palmyra’s forests and coral reefs for their ecological value and for the many benefits they provide to people. Visit

Siemens Corporation is a subsidiary of Siemens AG, a technology company focused on industry, infrastructure, transport, and healthcare. From more resource-efficient factories, resilient supply chains, and smarter buildings and grids, to cleaner and more comfortable transportation as well as advanced healthcare, the company creates technology with purpose adding real value for customers. By combining the real and the digital worlds, Siemens empowers its customers to transform their industries and markets, helping them to transform the everyday for billions of people. Siemens also owns a majority stake in the publicly listed company Siemens Healthineers, a globally leading medical technology provider shaping the future of healthcare. In addition, Siemens holds a minority stake in Siemens Energy, a global leader in the transmission and generation of electrical power. Siemens has been supporting the industries and creating the infrastructure forming the backbone of America’s economy for more than 160 years, with 40,000 employees, 17,000 suppliers, and customers in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. In fiscal 2020, Siemens Group USA generated revenue of nearly $20 billion.