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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Seeing the Reef for the Corals

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Monday, February 8, 2016/Categories: natural history, wildlife conservation, photography, space science, marine life, sustainability, environment


                         CORAL logo (credit: JPL)                                     Palau Coral Reefs, March 2014 (credit: NASA)

Coral reefs are called the "rainforests of the seas" becuase of their exceptionally high biological diversity. Reefs are nurseries to nearly 25% of all the ocean's fish species; they protect coastal and island shorelines from storms; produce food for everyone; and offer economic benefits from tourism. Amazingly, only a few of the Earth's reefs have been well studied besides by labor-intensive marine expeditions. Many have never been surveyed at all and as one NASA researcher noted: “Right now, the state of the art for collecting coral reef data is scuba diving with a tape measure."

This lack of knowledge is particularly troubling considering the changes now underway as climate change increases the temperature and chemistry of the oceans. Estimates suggest that between one-third to one-half of all reef ecosystems are now degarded or have been lost from these environmental impacts. Practical research is needed to understand coral reef health, the ecological changes underway, if degradation can be reversed, and if corals exist that might be able to survive and reproduce in warmer ecosystems. If so, it may be possible to encourage the establishment and regrowth of heat-tolerant coral polyps.

A research initiatve at CalTech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has begun to gather 'big data' sets on reefs to offer such applied insights. Called the COral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) JPL researchers intend flying modified aircraft gear that will monitor reef ecosystems in the USA, Palau, Australia, and elsewhere. Using a Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer (PRISM) the data scans will offer high resolution details in light wavelenghts that make it possible to see reef features as small as 1 foot.


            COral Reef Airborne Laboratory Spectrometer Scanner (credit: JPL)

JPL is now flying their airborne lab over the island nation of Palau in the western Pacific. While the CORAL program will help advance information on reef health significantly, it will cover less than 5 percent of the world’s coral reefs. Hopefully, a satellite can be launched someday to monitor the health of them all and allow for sustainable management of these critical ecosystems.             



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