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NASA to study coral reefs in greater details than ever before

Staff writer ▼ | January 13, 2016
A new three-year NASA field expedition gets underway this year that will use instruments on airplanes and in the water to survey more of the world's coral reefs in far greater detail than ever before.
Coral reef
CORAL   The COral Reef Airborne Laboratory
The COral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) will measure the condition of these threatened ecosystems and create a unique database of uniform scale and quality.

Coral reefs, sometimes called the rainforests of the sea, are home to a quarter of all ocean fish species. They protect shorelines from storms and provide food for millions of people, yet very little of the world's reef area has been studied scientifically.

Virtually all measurements have been made by expensive, labor-intensive diving expeditions. Many reefs never have been surveyed, and those reefs that have been studied were measured only at a few dive sites.

Hochberg's team will survey the condition of entire reef systems in Florida, Hawaii, Palau, the Mariana Islands and Australia. CORAL will use an airborne instrument called the Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer (PRISM), developed and managed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Concurrent in-water measurements will validate the airborne measurements of reef condition. In turn, reef condition will be analyzed in the context of the prevailing environment, including physical, chemical, and human factors. The results will reveal how the environment shapes reef ecosystems.

Reefs worldwide are threatened by human impacts and climate change. The limited observations made to date suggest that 33 to 50 percent of our planet's coral reefs have been significantly degraded or lost, and the concern among reef scientists is that most functioning reef ecosystems will disappear by mid-century.