What can NASA learn from a bird's eye view of the Great Barrier Reef?

Scientists with NASA are set to begin a three-year mission that they hope will provide a better understanding of reef conditions. 

David Gray/Reuters/File
Peter Gash, owner and manager of the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, snorkels with Oliver Lanyon and Lewis Marshall, Senior Rangers in the Great Barrier Reef region for the Queenlsand Parks and Wildlife Service, during an inspection of the reef's condition in an area called the 'Coral Gardens' located at Lady Elliot Island located north-east from the town of Bundaberg in Queensland, Australia, June 10, 2015.

NASA is set to begin its latest mission: studying the Great Barrier Reef from above. 

In a press conference Wednesday, scientists from NASA's Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) laid out their goals for the three-year project. 

"The Great Barrier Reef is Australia's national treasure, so having a broader understanding of its condition and what's threatening it will help us better understand how we can protect it," said Tim Malthus, research leader of CSIRO's Coastal Monitoring, Modeling and Informatics Group in Canberra, Australia. He added that beyond "surveying several large sections of the reef, CORAL will also survey the health of corals in the Torres Strait, a complex high-tide area that has been historically less studied."

The reef has been studied by countless researchers over the years, of course. But, as The Christian Science Monitor's Story Hinckley reported in June, scientific diving expeditions are limited in their time and depth. Scientists hope NASA's mission, which combines aerial surveys using state-of-the-art airborne imaging spectrometer technology with in-water validation activities, will be able to provide new insights. 

"The idea is to get a new perspective on coral reefs from above, to study them at a larger scale than we have been able to before, and then relate reef condition to the environment," Eric Hochberg, a researcher at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, told the Associated Press in June. 

The spectral image data will rely on three measurements: primary productivity, calcification, and relative amounts of coral, algae, and sand. CORAL researchers will record these figures and ratios as a baseline comparison for future assessments. 

CORAL planes will fly approximately 23,000 feet above the water, roughly 10,000 feet below the flight of a typical commercial airliner.

The Great Barrier Reef, located in the Coral Sea off Queensland, Australia, is made up of more than 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands. As the largest single structure made by living organisms on Earth, the reef is more than 1,400 miles (2,300 kilometers) long and spans an area of about 133,000 square miles. 

The Great Barrier Reef has always been a popular attraction for tourists and researchers alike, but has gained heightened attention this year since scientists found that bleaching had destroyed at least one-third of the northern and central reef. As the Monitor's Ben Rosen reported in May

Mass bleaching has killed 35 percent of the coral in northern and central parts of the 1,600-mile Great Barrier Reef, the largest living organism on the planet, according to estimates from the Australian Research Council's (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

The percentage jumps to more than 50 percent near Cooktown, in the central part of the reef, researchers found after surveying 84 reefs. While 95 percent of the reefs in the southern part of the ecosystem survived the bleaching event, it remains the worst to have ever been observed.

Using new technology, NASA scientists say they plan to create a uniform data set for reefs all across the Pacific Ocean, which they will then use to study trends between coral reef conditions and how reefs are affected by natural and manmade biological and environmental factors. 

"CORAL offers the clearest, most extensive picture to date of the condition of a large portion of the world's coral reefs," said Dr. Hochberg prior to the briefing, according to a NASA press release. "This new understanding of reef condition and function will allow scientists to better predict the future of this global ecosystem and provide policymakers with better information for decisions regarding resource management."

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