Coral reefs are essential for humanity. They provide food and income benefitting 500 million people every day. More than a quarter of all marine species spend at least some part of their life cycle in coral reefs, including species crucial to commercial and subsistence fishermen. Healthy reefs also protect roughly 200 million people in coastal communities from erosion, flooding and storms—reducing wave force by as much as 97 percent. And they generate billions of dollars in value for the tourism and pharmaceutical industries.
The value of coral reefs to humanity may well be the key to saving them.
More sectors—tourism, insurance, engineering, tech—are getting
involved, and our scientific understanding of complex coral functions
and their interconnectedness with people is evolving rapidly.
In the Caribbean, the fishing and tourism industries are major
driving forces behind local economies, establishing coral reefs as
crucial drivers of growth. Yet, it is estimated that coral reef coverage
has decreased by 50-80% in the region. How can we avoid further loss
and enable better management of these crucial assets?
piece to the puzzle is the role of data and high-resolution imagery in
assessing coral health and quantifying the specific combination of
threats to reefs at a hyper-local level of resolution—so we can
We are taking to the sky—even outer
space—to better see underwater. Along with Planet, a group specializing
in state-of-the-art satellite imaging technologies, and the Carnegie
Institution for Science, we are piloting a new level of coral
understanding in the Caribbean—providing never-before-seen detail that
can support smarter planning and decision making at the needed pace for
meaningful coral action.
The approach travels truly from space to sea—involving a 200+
satellite constellation acting as a live scanner of the Earth; an
aircraft and air drones collecting hyperspectral images of the reef; and
SCUBA divers gathering in-the-water data.
These layers of data
will provide a complete assessment of the reef including chemical
footprint, species composition and stress levels—and ultimately a
game-changing coastal ecosystem map for the Caribbean designed to help
unlock new solutions for coral health.
The opportunity, of course,
is then bringing this research approach to other coral reef systems in
need of a higher resolution across the planet.
In addition to mapping coral reefs from the sky, this mission includes analyzing pre- and post-storm satellite imagery on islands that were devastated by the 2017 hurricanes, such as St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. By comparing image mosaics from Planet, scientists will be able to analyze visuals that were taken before and after the hurricanes to detect impacts to coral reefs from catastrophic hurricanes. In addition, they will be able to demonstrate the critical role that healthy reefs play in protecting vulnerable coastlines from storm events.
"Now more than ever, as coral reefs face an increasing number of threats, it is critical to help Caribbean countries dependent on healthy reefs for their economic prosperity and their safety to protect their marine resources."
Luis Solórzano, Executive Director for The Nature Conservancy in the Caribbean