Satellites usually trained on space will now spend some time investigating what’s going on in the planet’s oceans.

Organizations working to protect the world’s coral reefs just got a powerful ally: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, best known as NASA. Although the agency usually spends its time looking out into space, now, NASA will look at coral reefs.

NASA Will Look at Coral Reefs

Coral reefs cover just 0.2 percent of the ocean floor, but are home to about a quarter of all life in the oceans. For this reason, they are called “the rainforests of the seas,” but even this designation doesn’t do them justice. Reefs are absolutely critical for life in the oceans, and they are disappearing at an alarming rate. Between 30 and 50 percent of all surveyed coral reefs have seen decline or have been lost completely in recent decades, and it is estimated that another 32 percent will be lost within the next 32 years.

While there is quite a bit of data the ocean acidification, global warming and pollution that are doing our reefs in, only a small percentage of them have actually have been studied. So, while we know there is a problem, we don’t know the full extent of that problem. But that may change with NASA’s help.

NASA has announced that it will launch a 3-year program called the Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL), wherein airplanes with extremely advanced instruments will study “more coral reefs and in greater detail than ever before,” to use NASA’s phrasing.

According the program’s principal investigator, Eric Hochberg, an enormous amount of data can be collected. The current method of surveying corals is through human observation by scuba diving on individual reefs, taking measurements of corals to see if they are growing at normal rates, or are declining. He likens this method to looking at a few trees in order to figure out if an entire forest is healthy.

The CORAL team will focus their research on key reef systems in Florida, Hawaii, Palau, the Mariana Islands and Australia. Using an instrument called the Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer (PRISM), they’ll be able to discern between living, thriving corals and corals that have succumbed to bleaching. The PRISM findings will be corroborated by in-water samples to for validation. This part of the project will take place in 2016 and 2017, with the third year of the project, 2018, set aside for analyzation of the data.

This is not the first time NASA has gotten involved in ocean protection. In the early 2000s, the agency made satellite imagery from the Landsat 7, among other satellites, available to researchers studying reef decline. While these satellites were originally launched to observe land-based changes due to erosion and other factors, they proved quite useful in studying reefs as well. However, the level of detail in imagery and data that was provided by this project is dwarfed by what the CORAL project is likely to give us. And more may be to come.

“Ideally, in a decade or so we’ll have a satellite that can frequently and accurately observe all of the world’s reefs, and we can push the science and, most importantly, our understanding even further,” said Hochberg in a NASA press release.

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