NASA is taking great lengths to save coral reefs.
Together with top scientists from all over the world, NASA launched Thursday a new research project that aims to gather data on coral reefs from 23,000 feet (7,010 meters) above.
The three-year campaign led by scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory will be known as Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL). Experts hope the program will help them determine how environmental forces affect coral reefs around the globe.
Eric Hochberg, principal investigator for CORAL, says the airborne mission will survey reefs at specific locations in the Pacific. The main goal is to get a new perspective from above, study them at a larger scale and relate the condition of the reefs to the environment.
Indeed, the project targets to solve one of the biggest practical roadblocks faced by scientific divers when it comes to studying coral reef ecosystems.
Biology Professor Julia Baum of University of Victoria says scientific divers are limited by the depth with which they can work at and the amount of time they have while diving. She says so much of underwater marine science, particularly the study of coral reefs, is an excruciatingly long process.
What's more, locations affected by coral bleaching such as the Great Barrier Reef are expansive. If the reef were transposed on the western coast of North America, it would span from British Columbia, Canada to Baja California, Mexico.
"How do you study that big of an area by doing hour-long hikes?" says Hochberg, who is also a researcher from the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences.
Hochberg says CORAL will produce one of the most extensive images to date of the condition of the vast portion of the world's coral reef from a standard data set.
The dataset will show trends between biogeophysical forces — both natural and manmade — and conditions of coral reefs. He says this will help scientists better predict the future of the global coral reef ecosystem and provide data for lawmakers.
The CORAL project will employ the use of a Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer (PRISM) installed in an airplane. "In situ data" or data on coral reefs in their rightful place will validate the observations.
CORAL will receive data from key coral reefs in the Mariana Islands, Hawaii, Great Barrier Reef and Palau without even touching the waters.
The data will describe the conditions of the coral reef through three measurements: calcification, primary productivity, and amounts of sand, coral and algae. These figures will become a baseline comparison for future analysis.
Once captured, the CORAL data will take six months of processing before scientists release it to the public.