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Updated June 10th, 2021 at 14:39 IST

NASA partners with ocean research body to map and protect coral reefs

NASA has entered a Space Act Agreement with the Living Oceans Foundation, giving the NeMO-Net team access to data from the Global Reef Expedition.

Zaini Majeed
NASA
IMAGE: NASA/KSLOF/Unsplash | Image:self
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NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley partnered with Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation (KSLOF) to expand the efforts to map the planet’s most unique and oldest life forms—coral reefs. The heath of the coral is vital for the marine ecosystem and the sea creatures, however, the coral reefs are dying out at an unprecedented rate and thus, it is integral to map them to prevent deterioration.

NASA’s NeMO-Net, or the Neural Multi-Modal Observation and Training Network project has been on a mission to map and track the health of the world’s coral reefs with the help of tens of thousands of citizen scientists. The living oceans foundation based in Annapolis, Maryland, collaborated with the space agency to provide extensive high-resolution data about reefs and expand NASA’s coral mapping capabilities even further.

An associate scientist at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences and CORAL project Principal Investigator, Eric Hochberg had informed that the "state of the art for collecting coral reef data is scuba diving with a tape measure. It's analogous to looking at a few trees and then trying to say what the forest is doing."

[Credit: NASA/KSLOF]

In a news release on June 9, NASA explained that it entered a Space Act Agreement with the Living Oceans Foundation, giving the NeMO-Net team access to data from the Global Reef Expedition, one of the largest surveys of corals ever done. The 10-year research mission aims to travel across the globe and conduct surveying and mapping one-fifth of the world’s coral reefs, in order to effectively address the coral reef crisis. With the help of the foundation, NASA plans to generate a massive dataset in conjunction with the neural network and the Pleiades supercomputer at Ames that powers NeMO-Net. 

[Credit: NASA/KSLOF]

A three-year NASA field expedition to examine Earth’s coral reefs has already been underway for years. Under its extensive CORAL project—short for the “COral Reef Airborne Laboratory,” NASA scientists use advanced optical instrumentation to survey the condition of more of the world's coral reefs and understand more about the coral reefs ecology at global scales. 

CORAL deploys a special airborne instrument called the Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer (PRISM), developed and managed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). PRISM flies at an altitude of 28,000 feet above the coral reefs aboard a modified aircraft. Last year, NASA invited video gamers and citizen scientists to embark on virtual ocean research expeditions to help map coral reefs in an effort to better understand these threatened ecosystems.

[Scientists survey coral reefs on the Global Reef Expedition. Credit: The Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation (KSLOF)/ NASA]

Rising water temperatures linked to climate change threaten the health and function of these fragile ecosystems, triggering events such as coral bleaching. Overfishing of key fish and invertebrate species and overharvesting of corals disrupt the natural systems, introducing invasive species and resulting in coral disease—NASA Science explains. 

NeMO-Net's maps to get more accurate

Coral reef ecosystems play a vital role in maintaining Earth’s marine biodiversity. The reefs protect shorelines from storms, provide food for millions of people and create both jobs and revenue in the tourism industry, NASA informed. “With this combination of tools and information, NeMO-Net's maps will become more accurate, giving researchers and environmental managers better information about what's happening to coral reefs,” the space administration explained. It added, that the data will enable NASA to protect the population of coral reefs that are at risk due to rising sea temperatures and other hazards, including overfishing, pollution, and coastal development. 

[Global Reef Expedition resulted in the creation of 65,000 square kilometers of high-resolution coral reef habitat maps. Credit: The Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation (KSLOF)/ NASA]

"Reefs respond in complex ways to environmental stresses such as sea-level change, rising ocean temperatures, and pollution,” Hochberg had explained as NASA started the CORAL project. “We need accurate data across many whole reef ecosystems to develop an overarching, quantitative model that describes why and how reefs change in response to environmental changes.”

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Published June 10th, 2021 at 14:39 IST

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