Reefs Explored by CORAL


Coral reefs are on the decline the world over. That’s not good. Current estimates place the degradation of worldwide coral reef ecosystems at between 33% and 50%, depending on the study. Despite that the majority of people don’t live anywhere near them, coral reefs affect all of our lives.

“People may not realize it if they’re living in the Midwest but coral reefs are impacting you in some capacity,” said Michelle Gierach, ocean scientist at JPL. “If you had to put a value on it, coral reefs are a multibillion dollar industry in the various ecosystem goods and services they provide. So whether it’s food for some of the small island nations or even food for the continental United States, some of the fish are coming from the ‘rain forest of the sea’ as people call them. They also provide protection for those who live along the coast. But clearly the number one thing that people think of when they think coral reefs is tourism. People like seeing these beautiful things that live in the coral, on the coral and around the coral reef ecosystem.”

Recently, a coral reef species of cone snail has been found to produce a neurotoxin that paralyzes fish but dulls pain in humans. It is now in trials as a painkiller that is less habit-forming than many on the market today. The coral reef touches many parts of the human existence. But more importantly, they react to changes in the oceans of the world that may not otherwise be perceived.

“They are one of the true canary-in-the-coal-mine scenarios in that they are one of the first ecosystems to respond critically, dramatically and globally to not only local environmental degradation but also global climate change,” Gierach said.

This is why the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has partnered with the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS), as well as several other academic institutions with international collaboration, to launch the Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory Mission (CORAL).

“The CORAL mission is a three-year NASA field campaign that will use state-of-the-art airborne and in-water instrumentation to survey a portion of the world’s coral reefs, actually measure the conditions of these vital ecosystems and understand their relation to the environment, how they’re changing with respect to physics and chemistry, as well as human factors like marine pollution or overfishing,” said Gierach, who also serves as project scientist for CORAL.

Flying at 28,000 feet in a Gulfstream 4, NASA’s Portable Remote Imaging SpectroMeter (PRISM) will bounce light off of the ocean and break it up into spectra to reveal the health and composition of the sands, algae, coral and life around it. All in all, the mission will run through 2017 and will cover four different sites throughout the Western and Central Tropical Pacific –the entire Hawaiian island chain, Palau, the Marianas Islands and portions of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

When people think of NASA and JPL, Gierach said, they think of Mars and space exploration. But they actually do quite a bit of work researching Earth with respect to geology, marine science, climatology and more. The CORAL mission will help to fill in some of the gaps in data and understanding what is on Earth and how coral reefs play a part in the overall health of this world.

“Coral reefs are 0.1% of the global ocean surface and our current understanding of that, what we have actual data for, is 0.1%,” Gierach said. “So you basically have 0.1% of 0.1%, which is a very small fraction realistically. So what CORAL provides is a large spatial coverage over entire reef ecosystems. Our current assessment right now is analogous to looking at a tree in a forest and saying something about the entire forest, where what CORAL and what NASA will do with their airborne imager is provide a complete view of that forest to say something about how it’s changing.”

For more information on the CORAL project, visit