NASA to study the health of coral reefs across the world

Project CORAL will use a spectrometer to measure reef conditions.

AP Photo/Alastair Grant

Coral reefs are breathtaking homes for a diverse range of marine life, including turtles, sharks and eels. They're under threat from pollution, fishing and climate change though, and the data available on their deteriorating health is scattershot. To help, NASA is launching the Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) project, which will survey entire reef systems in Florida, Hawaii, Palau, the Mariana Islands and Australia. Airborne measurements will be taken with a Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer (PRISM), which records the spectra of light reflected upwards by the ocean, and specifically the different signatures created by coral and algae.

Algae numbers increase as living corals die, so measuring the two across wide areas should give a good indicator of reef health. At the same time, the team will be taking in-water measurements to double-check PRISM's measurements, and also evaluating the surroundings -- physical, chemical and human factors -- to see how these affect individual reefs.

"Estimates of global reef status are synthesized from local surveys with disparate aims, methods and quality," Michelle Gierach, the CORAL project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said. "With CORAL, we will provide not only the most extensive picture to date of the condition of a large portion of the world's coral reefs, but a uniform dataset, as well."

CORAL is a three-year project, but the resulting data will still only capture three to four percent of the world's total reefs. It's a drop in the ocean, although scientists say the final figures will be enough to make predictions on reef degradation "based on numbers, rather than just ideas."