Hawai'i State News

Researchers: Olympic tower construction could damage Tahiti reef ecosystem

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Three-dimensional photogrammetry techniques were used to assess ecology of the reef system in the lagoon at Teahupo’o, Tahiti. (Photo by Todd Glaser)

A new judging tower under construction in the reef lagoon at Teahupo’o, Tahiti, in preparation for the 2024 Olympic surfing competition, poses a threat to the reef and its ecosystem, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, UH-Hilo and Arizona State University along with community partners in Tahiti.

The study published in Remote Sensing assessed the importance of protecting the reef.

Although there is an existing judging tower used by the World Surf League, the Paris 2024 Olympic organizers intend to invest about $5 million to build a substantially larger tower to provide amenities for judges, such as toilets, air conditioning and capacity for 40 people.


“We hope the International Olympic Committee, appropriate government officials and the greater international community can see how devastating this impact will be to not only the valuable coral reef habitat, but also the local community who depend on this reef for their livelihood and well-being,” said John Burns, lead author of the study, UH-Hilo associate professor in marine science and data science and MEGA Lab member.

In addition to an assessment of the reef, researchers mapped the lagoon area where the reef is being dredged to accommodate barge transport of tower materials. This dredging could directly impact an area of the reef that is about half the size of a football field.

The Teahupo’o community is concerned about impacts to the reef system in a lagoon because of construction of a new Olympic surfing competition towner. (Photo by Todd Glaser)

That could cause at least $1.3 million in damages to the live reef habitat.


The team’s impact estimates are conservative, only accounting for direct impacts and not including the potential financial impacts for communities that depend on these resources or the impact on the much greater lagoon area if water quality is affected.

The researchers teamed up with community members from Vai Ara O Teahupo’o and used 3-D photogrammetry techniques to create high-resolution habitat maps of three sites that will be impacted by dredging and tower construction.

The resulting mosaics were analyzed to quantify species diversity, coral colony count, coral colony size and percent of the ocean floor covered by live coral and other living organisms.


The data show these sites support healthy and diverse coral communities that contribute to the ecological function of the larger reef system at Teahupo’o. In just the area where the tower would be located, 1,003 corals from 20 different species were identified, indicating the site is thriving.

“Although these organisms’ value will never be fully represented through a capitalistic lens, based on U.S. valuations used by the Hawai‘i Division of Aquatic Resources, our data show the value of just the corals and algae at this small portion of the reef is estimated to be worth at least $170,000,” said Haunani Kane, the study’s co-author, assistant professor of earth sciences at UH-Mānoa and MEGA Lab member.

Cliff Kapono, another study co-author, assistant professor at Arizona State University and MEGA Lab member, said the team hopes now that information about the ecological impact and community concern the construction of the tower will be reassessed.

“There are alternatives to constructing a new tower, such as using the existing tower, which the World Surf League uses for competitions,” said Kapono.

Cliff Kapono talks with members of Vai Ara O Teahupoʻo. Kapono is a co-author of a new study looking at how the construction of a new Olympic surfing competition tower in Tahiti will damage a reef ecosystem. (Photo by Todd Glaser)

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