Imagine being tasked with studying the world’s forests—understanding how they function as complex ecosystems with multiple components constantly in flux. Now imagine only being able to study a handful of trees at one time, perhaps only a few hundred or thousand each year. Could you accurately explain how individual trees work together with soil nutrients, forest fauna and climate to create forest ecosystems?


Great Barrier Reef and US Coast

Reef surveys are essentially a series of one-hour-long SCUBA dives. For the Great Barrier Reef (left, in yellow) this is equivalent to making a series of one-hour hikes along the U.S. West Coast (right). How many is enough?


For decades scientists have attempted to understand and describe reef ecosystems by studying individual corals, or small patches of reef, using in-water survey techniques (i.e., SCUBA diving) that are labor-intensive, expensive and limited in scope. As a result, information about reef ecosystem function is sparse and no scientific models relate reef condition to biogeophysical (i.e., biological and environmental) factors.

The only tool currently available for acquiring uniform data on reef condition at regional to global scales is remote sensing. A satellite equipped with suitable sensors would accomplish this; however, no such sensors are in orbit. A targeted airborne (plane) investigation can provide the data necessary to develop ecosystem-scale models that link reef condition to biological, chemical and physical influences (biogeochemical forcings). With these models, scientists, resource managers and politicians can better understand how natural and anthropogenic processes impact reefs and, in turn, make informed decisions about conservation and management.

The COral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) investigation is a 3-year mission, funded by the NASA Earth Venture Suborbital-2 (EVS-2) Project, to produce the first comprehensive assessment of reef condition for a large portion of the world’s coral reefs. CORAL will use a state-of-the-art sensor developed by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)—called PRISM—in airborne remote sensing campaigns across four coral reef regions in the western and central Pacific Ocean that are representative of the world’s reefs. CORAL scientists will also conduct simultaneous in-situ (or in-water) measurements to validate the PRISM data products.


Map of CORAL survey regions

CORAL survey regions


The result of CORAL will be a set of quantitative, empirical models that can be used to estimate current reef condition and forecast how reefs may respond to various biological, physical and chemical changes in the world’s ocean. These models will help answer fundamental science questions, including:

  • How are global ecosystems changing?
  • How do ecosystems, land cover and biogeochemical cycles respond to and affect global environmental change?
  • What are the consequences of climate change and increased human activities for coastal regions?
  • How will carbon cycle dynamics and terrestrial and marine ecosystems change in the future?


Listen in as Dr. Eric Hochberg (CORAL Principal Investigator) describes CORAL in his own words:


Follow the CORAL mission online at:

On facebook: coralreefairbornelaboratory

On twitter: @CORALmission

On instagram: nasa_coral

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