Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has become an international icon of biodiversity loss, as a result of Climate Change and warming oceans. With alarming levels of bleaching occurring across many parts of the world’s largest coral reef system, authorities around the world including NASA have set in motion a new means to study and protect The Great Barrier Reef and the world’s oceans from above.
NASA has launched a two-month airborne mission over the Great Barrier Reef that will provide the highest resolution images yet of the world’s largest reef ecosystem. Australia’s CSIRO has suggested it might also be the beginnings of a reef monitoring system from space.
Called CORAL – the COral Reef Airborne Laboratory mission – the study will combine aerial surveys using imaging spectrometer technology developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), with “in-water validation” provided by CSIRO and the University of Queensland.To get stories like this delivered to your mailbox every week, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
The GBR mission is part of a three-year program also covering reef systems in the main Hawaiian Islands, the Mariana Islands and Palau.
Dr Tim Malthus, research leader of CSIRO’s Coastal Monitoring, Modelling and Informatics Group said having a broader understanding of the reef’s condition and what’s threatening it would help researchers better understand how it can be protected.
“Along with surveying several large sections of the reef, CORAL will also survey the health of corals in the Torres Strait, a complex high-tide area that has been historically less studied,” he said.
CORAL principal investigator Dr Eric Hochberg of the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS) said virtually all reef assessments to date relied on in-water survey techniques that were laborious, expensive and limited in spatial scope.
“Very little of Earth’s reef area has been directly surveyed,” he said.
“More importantly, there are no existing models that quantitatively relate reef conditions to the full range of biological and environmental factors that affect them — models that can help scientists better understand how coral reefs will respond to expected environmental changes.
“CORAL offers the clearest, most extensive picture to date of the condition of a large portion of the world’s coral reefs.
“This new understanding of reef condition and function will allow scientists to better predict the future of this global ecosystem and provide policymakers with better information for decisions regarding resource management.”
In Australia, CORAL will survey six discrete sections across the length of the Great Barrier Reef, from the Capricorn-Bunker Group in the south to Torres Strait in the north.
Two locations on the reef — one north (Lizard Island Research Station) and one south (Heron Island Research Station) — will serve as bases for in-water validation activities.
The key to this new data collection is JPL’s Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer (PRISM). PRISM peers through the ocean’s surface to generate high-resolution images of reflected light in the specific regions of the electromagnetic spectrum important to coral reef scientists.
Mounted in the belly of a modified Tempus Solutions Gulfstream IV aircraft, described by some as a “flying laboratory”, PRISM will survey reefs from an altitude of 8500 metres to generate calibrated scientific data products.
“It provides the coral reef science community with high-quality oceanographic imagery at the accuracy, range, resolution, signal-to-noise ratio, sensitivity and uniformity needed to answer key questions about coral reef condition,” NASA CORAL project scientist at JPL, Dr Michelle Gierach said.
“PRISM data will be analysed against data for 10 key biological and environmental factors affecting coral reef ecosystems, acquired from pre-existing data sources.”
CORAL will generate scientific data products describing coral reef condition, measuring three key components of reef health where data is currently limited – composition, primary productivity and calcification.
NASA has announced data from the survey will be available publicly to all researchers to then apply their own ideas and modelling.