From Constellation to Coral Reefs

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

East End Marine Park, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.
East End Marine Park in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. © Marjo Aho

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.

St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.
Saving Corals from the Sky St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. © 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.

Working at the nexus of science and application, we are developing scalable solutions to combat coral reef decline, while inspiring community-based action.

Joseph Pollock, Ph.D. Coral Strategy Director, TNC Caribbean Division

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