NASA’s Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) entered in functions on June 06, 2016. The researchers there want to study the state of coral reefs around the world. They began by doing a survey in Oahu in Hawaii. The ultimate goal is to analyze these undersea formations as an environment taking into account three primary aspects: the coral, the algae, and the sands. The researching team wants to understand how these structures develop, and how they are being affected by climate change and human activities.
So far, the information scientists have on coral reefs is very scarce due to the methods used in the collection of data. Groups of scuba divers, ships, and sub-marine vehicles work very hard to get much-needed data, but the spectrum they cover is dim compared to the massive size these structures have.
Working underwater is tough, many elements complicate the functionality of the equipment such as pressure and salt water, but CORAL found a way to overcome this obstacle. The researching team is going to use an airplane equipped with a special camera called PRISM. The Portable Remote Imaging SpectroMeter can see objects underwater without difficulties. It is to be set on a Gulfstream IV airplane which will fly over reef formations creating a map that allows scientists to study the environment.
“Now, estimates of global reef status are synthesized from local surveys with disparate aims, methods and quality,” Said Michelle Gierach who is the CORAL project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “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.”
Science knows almost nothing about coral reefs
Most of the information that researchers have on reefs come from pictures taken by scuba divers. Yes, they work very hard to get this images, but they only show a tiny, limited fraction of the submarine world. And this is information comes from the areas that scuba divers can visit which mean, there is not enough data to understand how these environments develop and how human beings affect it. The CORAL project intents to correct this by making a full mapping of coral reefs around the world. With this information, scientists could understand how resilient these structures are, how they deal with climate change and much more.
They are playing a vital role in maintaining Earth’s marine biodiversity, pretty much like jungles inland. Hard corals have existed on Earth since the Mid-Triassic period, and unlike dinosaurs, they have adapted well to the planet’s different conditions. They are more commonly found in the ocean, almost at any height, but a group of scientists discovered these formations at the mouth of the Amazonas River which was a surprise.
Polyps are a little life-form from the phylum Cnidaria order. They are like distant cousins from medusas. In the sea, they subdivide into two species, sea anemones, and corals. The latter lives in colonies that are made of many individual polyps. A coral reef is a complete package which includes the formations, the life it sustains and the sand. While science has a pretty good idea how polyps interact with each other, there is not enough information to understand how all the elements work as an environment.
NASA will use everything from airplanes to satellites
So far, scientists have used the information provided by the Sentinel-2 Satellite, which was launched by the European Space Agency in June 2015. Even though it was not made for sea exploration, its visual capabilities are outstanding which allows it to collect useful imagery. The satellite was set to check the same locations in Hawaii every five days. This will allow the research group checking short-term events like coral bleaching and algal blooms. The final report on the initial phase of the project studying Hawaii’s coral reefs is going to be presented on June 22 at a coral-reef Symposium in Honolulu.
Satellites are too far away, and they cannot take pictures of everything. That is why CORAL is also going to use airplanes equipped with PRISM. Its primary goal will be to assess how much coral cover there is on a given reef. With this, the researchers can calculate how well the coral reef is doing to maintain itself, and also, allows them to study the impact human population might have on the reef’s health.
“One of PRISM’s tasks will be to record the ratio of algae to reef on a coral. When corals die, algae numbers typically increase, and the spectral signatures of corals and algae show up differently in the spectrometer” NASA said
The project is scheduled to last three years and is going to study about 3% to 4% of the world’s reef including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.