Main Content

From Constellation to Coral Reefs

Revolutionary aerial mapping technology brings a new resolution to coral solutions in the Caribbean

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.

<strong>Taking to the Sky to Save Coral Reefs: An Interactive Mapping Mission</strong> - Scroll down to understand how creating layers of information—that span from outer space to undersea—will ensure the most precise and detailed data collection ever undertaken for coral reef mapping. Photo © Marjo Aho
Taking to the Sky to Save Coral Reefs: An Interactive Mapping Mission - Scroll down to understand how creating layers of information—that span from outer space to undersea—will ensure the most precise and detailed data collection ever undertaken for coral reef mapping. Photo © Marjo Aho

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?

One emerging 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 personalize solutions.

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

Our Aerial Mapping Mission in Pictures

View the below slideshow to experience the day from sky to sea.

(1/10) The Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO) preparing for takeoff in St. Croix. Photo © Marjo Aho
(1/10) The Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO) preparing for takeoff in St. Croix. Photo © Marjo Aho
(2/10) Inside the belly of the CAO aircraft. The aircraft's state-of-the-art technologies have the capacity to asses coral reefs at geographic scales, spatial resolutions and accuracies. Photo © Marjo Aho
(2/10) Inside the belly of the CAO aircraft. The aircraft's state-of-the-art technologies have the capacity to asses coral reefs at geographic scales, spatial resolutions and accuracies. Photo © Marjo Aho
(3/10) Dr. Greg Asner of the CAO and Joe Pollock, Coral Strategy Director for The Nature Conservancy in the Caribbean analyze data being monitored by the CAO aircraft, while on a fly over mission. Photo © Marjo Aho
(3/10) Dr. Greg Asner of the CAO and Joe Pollock, Coral Strategy Director for The Nature Conservancy in the Caribbean analyze data being monitored by the CAO aircraft, while on a fly over mission. Photo © Marjo Aho
(4/10) CAO pilots are responsible for flying the aircraft over very specific transects of the reef that are being mapped. Photo © Marjo Aho
(4/10) CAO pilots are responsible for flying the aircraft over very specific transects of the reef that are being mapped. Photo © Marjo Aho
(5/10) The mission in St. Croix was to map the East End Marine Park, a protected area pictured here. Photo © Marjo Aho
(5/10) The mission in St. Croix was to map the East End Marine Park, a protected area pictured here. Photo © Marjo Aho
(6/10) Buck Island, a U.S. National Monument, as seen out the window of the CAO aircraft as it flys over St. Croix. Photo © Marjo Aho
(6/10) Buck Island, a U.S. National Monument, as seen out the window of the CAO aircraft as it flys over St. Croix. Photo © Marjo Aho
(7/10) The stunning coast of St. Croix as seen out the window of the CAO aircraft. Healthy coral reefs are valuable assets for coastal communities, absorbing more than 90 percent of a wave's force before it reaches shore. Photo © Marjo Aho
(7/10) The stunning coast of St. Croix as seen out the window of the CAO aircraft. Healthy coral reefs are valuable assets for coastal communities, absorbing more than 90 percent of a wave's force before it reaches shore. Photo © Marjo Aho
(8/10) Dr. Steve Schill, Lead Scientist for The Nature Conservancy in the Caribbean, prepares a drone for launch. This will validate and verify the accuracy of the satellite and aerial mapping. Photo © Marjo Aho
(8/10) Dr. Steve Schill, Lead Scientist for The Nature Conservancy in the Caribbean, prepares a drone for launch. This will validate and verify the accuracy of the satellite and aerial mapping. Photo © Marjo Aho
(9/10) Data being collected by boat using an underwater drone camera adds another layer of information to create extremely accurate maps. Photo © Marjo Aho
(9/10) Data being collected by boat using an underwater drone camera adds another layer of information to create extremely accurate maps. Photo © Marjo Aho
(10/10) Muhajir McLauda (with The Nature Conservancy), photographing healthy corals and sponges in the waters off Kofiau. Photo © Jeff Yonover
(10/10) Muhajir McLauda (with The Nature Conservancy), photographing healthy corals and sponges in the waters off Kofiau. Photo © Jeff Yonover

Join the Conversation

Share this page on Twitter

Share on Facebook

Follow @nature_org for updates from The Nature Conservancy.

Related

It's Not Too Late to Save Coral Reefs

By Dr. Mark Spalding

Coral reefs are imperilled worldwide, but engaging new sectors in conservation could help us save these vital ecosystems.

View

A Revolution to Save Coral Reefs in the Caribbean and Beyond

We are tackling coral conservation from all sides to save reefs before it’s too late.

View