NASA’s Coral Reefs Rescue Mission

News from NASA usually evokes imagery of constellations, space stations, and massive black holes swallowing galaxies. This time, though, NASA’s news has more to do with our oceans here at home. As global warming continues, it is becoming more and more pressing for us to understand exactly how our coral reefs are being affected. With this in mind, NASA’s COral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) campaign will help scientists all over the world better understand what is happening with our coral reefs. This is great news since the prevailing strategy thus far for collecting data on coral reefs has been expensive and labor-intensive scuba diving excursions.

scuba diving to study coral reefs

About the CORAL Program

According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Earth Science Airborne Program, “The goal of the COral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) is to provide critical data and new models needed to analyze the status of coral reefs and to predict their future.” CORAL is being led by Eric Hochberg (the Principal Investigator), Michelle Gierach (Project Scientist), Ian Mccubbin (Project Manager), and Jennifer Olson (Mission Manager). 

How Will CORAL Record the Data?

The CORAL program will use an advanced instrument called a Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer (PRISM) that will be attached to a variety of airplanes and Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles (UAV). This instrument will record light that is reflected upward from the ocean. Living corals and algae give off unique light signatures that the PRISM device will pick up.

As corals die, PRISM will be able to detect the change in the ratio of coral and algae, providing scientists with valuable data. PRISM will be used not only for the CORAL program, but for other scientific endeavors as well. If you’re interested in tracking the PRISM flight path, you can check out the PRISM Flight Locator Tool.

How the PRISM device works

PRISM will be mounted on the underside of the plane and will record light that is reflected upward from the ocean. Credit: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory

With PRISM, the CORAL program will be surveying reef systems in Florida, Hawaii, Palau, the Mariana Islands and Australia. They will be collecting data over the next two years and will begin the data analysis afterwards.

This program will allow better data collection on three to four percent of the world’s reefs. While this still is not a large data sample, it is far more than has been collected previously. Additional data will enable scientists to make more accurate predictions on how reefs will be affected.

Why is it Important to Study Coral Reefs?

Right now, our coral reefs are in danger and need to be studied so scientists can help figure out how to save them. From the limited data scientists have, they believe that some “33 to 50 percent of our planet’s coral reefs have been significantly degraded or lost” (NASA.gov). This situation is detrimental not only for the coral reefs but also for humans and animals alike.

Coral reefs are important for a variety of reasons:

  • Coral reefs house a quarter of all ocean fish species.
  • They provide food for millions of people.
  • They protect our shorelines from hurricanes and other storms.
  • Corals provide economic value worth billions of dollars every year for fisheries and businesses that support tourism and recreation. In fact, according to NOAA, the commercial value of coral reefs for U.S. fisheries is over $100 million.
  • Coral reefs can also offer medicinal benefits that can help treat cancer and other diseases.
  • They help with nutrient recycling, which is vital for creating healthy ecosystems.

Coral reefs are a valuable resource for our planet, and one in need of protection. As global warming creates fiercer storms and hurricanes, coral reefs will be some of the last lines of defense against these storms. Without them, there will be greater infrastructural damage and billions in expenses, not to mention potential loss of life.

And Things are Getting Worse for the World’s Corals

Back in October 2015, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released an article announcing that a “third ever global coral bleaching event” had taken place.

Coral bleaching is the process of a stressed coral “expelling” the algae that lives in its tissues. This results in the coral turning white, hence the term bleaching. It’s important to note that bleached corals are not dead, but are highly subject to mortality. With more coral bleaching, there’s a greater possibility of even more coral reefs being wiped out forever.

Scientists project coral bleaching

Scientists believe there is a high probability that this coral bleaching will spread throughout 2016. Credit: NOAA

When Corals Die

The reason why this is so startling is because bleached corals can eventually die and, as a result, the reefs will erode. Reef erosion leads to less shoreline to protect us from storms and fewer habitats for important fish species. There are concerns that the strong El Niño will cause bleaching to spread throughout the globe this year (2016) and potentially destroy even more coral reefs. There are a number of factors contributing to coral bleaching and coral deaths. Climate change plays a huge part; it causes water temperatures to both rise and fall beyond levels that corals can tolerate. Pollution can play a role as well.

Coral Reef Bleaching

Coral reef bleaching infographic from NOAA.

How Can You Help Coral Reefs?

In light of the increasing coral bleaching, NASA’s news that they will be using the CORAL program to help study coral reefs is reassuring. However, there are numerous things we can do to save coral reefs. NOAA provides a lengthy list of suggestions, some of which include:

  • Support reef-friendly businesses.
  • Don’t use chemically enhanced pesticides and fertilizers.
  • Volunteer for a reef cleanup.
  • Learn more about coral reefs.
  • Become a member of your local aquarium or zoo.
  • Respect all local guidelines, recommendations, regulations, and customs regarding coral reefs.
  • Support conservation organizations.
  • Be an informed consumer.
  • Don’t pollute.
  • Recycle.

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