Reef Studies

With the catastrophic coral bleaching event now evident upon the Great Barrier Reef, the effects of climate change surely can’t be denied even by skeptics. NASA has certainly taken notice of worldwide coral distress and has launched a three year expedition for the the most thorough and in-depth study of the Earth’s coral eco-system ever.  Advanced technology on board airplanes, research vessels and imaging satellites orbiting the Earth will all be making their contributions. The Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL), a special hi-tech flying laboratory, will be conducting specialized measurement sorties of the ocean’s submerged ecosystems.

The people of Earth, as well as all other living things (trees, animals, etc.), are as dependent on coral reefs as we all are on the rainforests. Over twenty-five percent of the ocean’s fish call coral reefs home. Without the protective barrier of a coral reef, many shorelines would eventually erode and disintegrate. Coastal dwelling indigenous people find their daily dietary staples among the reefs and millions more throughout the world consume edibles that originated from coral reefs.

In the past, research of coral reefs has been limited to scuba diving teams using rudimentary tape measure methods to determine height, width, shrinkage, growth, etc. This has severely limited their abilities to monitor reef systems throughout the world. With the launch of NASA’s new research program, research teams will now be able to study the entire reefs of Australia, Florida, Hawaii, the Mariana Islands, and Palau. The special airplane laboratory is equipped with an instrument called PRISM (Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer). Traditional scuba measurements will be confirmed with the measurements the airborne laboratory takes.  Reefs will also be evaluated for the state of their health. Samples will be analyzed to determine specific levels of chemical contamination, human created damage, and specific environmental conditions. Then, after everything is measured, each reef will get a report card.

Humans and climate change are each having a damaging impact on coral reefs. Now we will find out just what shape they are in. With current data reporting that almost fifty percent of the entire world’s coral reefs are either seriously degraded or lost to us altogether, NASA’s efforts haven’t come a moment too soon. Many scientists fear, however, that it may be too late. Some predict it is entirely possible for all coral reefs to be extinct by 2050. That is terrible news and surely mankind is innovative enough to do something about it.

The most troubled systems have been in Jamaica and Florida. They have been rapidly deteriorating due to stress caused by warmer ocean temperatures, pollution and a rise in sea levels. In order to create a strategy to save these reefs, accurate data is vital.

The PRISM instrument will be put to the test to measure the light that is being reflected from the ocean floor up onto the reefs. As the reefs die, algae growth becomes abundant on the reef “skeletons”. Reflected sunlight encourages this algae growth. By being able to accurately measure patches of algae, it can be determined how much of a reef is dead.

The NASA mission will collect data throughout 2017. It will then begin analyzing the data and creating models based on their information. These models will help predict what will happen in the future with the world’s reef systems. Different solutions and scenarios can be introduced to the models to try to determine the best course of action to rescue the threatened ecosystems. The goal is to have a strategy put into action that delivers reef recovery within a decade. Again, I can only say, “Not a moment too soon.”