UH Hilo researchers part of team studying coral under historic World War II battlefield

A team of researchers will be studying the impact on surrounding coral communities from an amphibious invasion of Peleliu in the Republic of Palau.

Two images. At left is beached ship with supplies being off loaded, soldiers on the beach. At right image is taken from the bow if a ship, the land across the water is burning.
Areas to be studied, Peleliu. Left: Marines engaged in the bitter struggle to establish the Peleliu beach-head (Department of Defense Photo (USN) 95253.) Right: The skies over the landing beaches of Peleliu are blackened with smoke rising from the ground as the result of the combined naval and aerial pre-landing bombardment, as amphibian tractors rush shoreward carrying the assault waves (Department of Defense Photo (USN) 94913.)

An alumnus and a graduate student from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo will take part in an expedition in early April with a team of researchers to study a forgotten World War II battlefield in the Western Pacific. The research team will be studying the impact on surrounding coral communities from the amphibious invasion of Peleliu in the Republic of Palau.

John Burns
John Burns

John Burns is co-principal investigator of the one-year $90,000 project funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Burns, who received his master of science in tropical conservation biology and environmental science from UH Hilo and his doctor of philosophy in zoology from UH Mānoa, is doing his post-doctoral research at the UH Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology on O‘ahu. He specializes in coral health and disease. Kailey Pascoe, who received her bachelor of science in marine science from UH Hilo in 2016 and is now a graduate student in the university’s tropical conservation biology and environmental science program, will be joining the research team at Peleliu.

The project, “Peleliu’s Forgotten World War II Battlefield,” is the first attempt to conduct a comprehensive study of the bloodiest first-day amphibious landing in the entire Pacific campaign. A total of 73 amphibious tractors approached the beaches of Peleliu on September 15, 1944. Within hours, Marine casualties exceeded 500, and by the end of the day, nearly 60 of the amphibious tractors, 15 tanks and numerous amphibious trucks were damaged, wrecked or sunk.

“The amphibious element of the invasion is largely ignored in World War II histories, and its impact on corals has never been investigated,” Burns says. “We want to identify if and how the invasion blasting may have affected coral community structure and how it may be altering the ecology of these systems.”

Kailey Pascoe
Kailey Pascoe

Pascoe is studying coral reef ecology, scientific diving, and coral health and disease. Her master thesis is on the effects of demographics and community structure on mortality of corals throughout the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

In Peleliu, Pascoe will be working with Burns conducing structure for motion photogrammetry to produce 3D models to characterize the coral reef ecology. The research will employ remote sensing technology to search the landing beaches and fringing reefs for material remains, which include amphibious craft and their debris, as well as shells from defensive positions taken up by soldiers from Japan. Many of the amphibious craft failed to make it to the island, and are believed to be on top of or in the fringing reef, on the shallow plateau outside the reef, or in the lagoon and beach edges.

Three images. At left is 3-D image of reef under water. Middle is 3-D image of very rough reef terrain under water. And at right is 3D image of one big lump of coral.
Example of 3D reef reconstructions at multiple scales. (a) Oblique view of large area of reef substrate surveyed with drone imagery showing (b) Oblique view of a 3D model of coral colonies (mm-resolution) and (c) an individual colony (mm-resolution) reconstructed from this same location surveyed with single lens cameras. Image courtesy of University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo.

Burns plans a statistical comparison of the 3-D data from affected areas and those unaffected by the invasion blasting to determine what, if any impacts remain visible after 74 years. He says the biggest challenge may be overcoming the impact of evidence lost through previous shoreline development and reef cleanup.

To understand what impacts there are, we will sample and document areas of the reef using 3D photogrammetry. By including reef characterization of known areas where WWII pre-invasion blasting occurred, to our knowledge never previously undertaken or scientifically examined, the data gathered will be a first effort at understanding what impacts, if any, are still visible after 74 years.

We will also use 3D photogrammetry to record the WWII sites. By using both the biological and archaeological, we will be better able to determine how WWII artifacts affect reef habitat structure, coral composition, habitat quality, and recovery, and how reefs affect WWII site preservation.

“We do not know what sites are left or whether there are impacts of the pre-invasion blasting still visible,” Burns says. “Because the invasion beaches are a largely undocumented component of this historic battle, we are embarking on a project filled with the potential for discovery.”

The data and 3D models will be shared on the Coral Health Atlas website, where users can interactively immerse themselves into the study sites with 3D models and 360-panoramic video while learning about each location.


-Adapted from media release.

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