East End Marine Park, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.
Mapping the Sea from the Sky The Global Airborne Observatory (GAO) flies over the ocean capturing high-resolution imagery. © Marjo Aho

Perspectives

From Constellation to Coral Reefs

Taking to the sky—even outer space—with revolutionary technologies to protect habitats beneath the sea.

This article was updated September 25, 2020.

Like other marine regions made up of low-lying islands, the Caribbean way of life extends beyond shorelines in a way that’s unique to people of the coast. But with more than 2.5 million square kilometers of sea connecting hundreds of diverse island communities, the region’s communion with the underwater world is perhaps particularly profound. In fact, about half those who work here have jobs that rely on healthy marine habitats, including a vital network of coral reefs.

These ecosystems are, of course, endangered, bearing the brunt of rising ocean temperatures—and Caribbean communities are tied up in their fate. According to a study led by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), reef-associated tourism alone generates an estimated US$7.9 billion per year for local economies. What’s more, coral reefs create habitat essential for the fishing sector and natural barriers that aid in coastal storm protection, to say nothing of the innate value of these ancient lifeforms.

An aerial view of the edge of an island and blue-green water
© Marjo Aho

More About the Maps

Fitting together thousands of images gathered via technologies in space, sky and sea, maps are being created that reveal an unprecedented level of detail about underwater habitats.
 

Dive deeper into the technology used to create the maps.

Shedding light on the extraordinary value of coral reefs has helped catalyze innovative approaches to protecting them, but one problem has remained: many reef systems are uncharted, leaving nations struggling to protect and manage resources they can’t precisely see.

But not anymore. With the aid of aerial remote sensing technologies, TNC and partners are creating the first-ever high-resolution maps of coral reefs and other marine habitats throughout the Caribbean basin. This means 30 countries and territories will have access to accurate information about the habitats on which they depend, helping to advance ocean conservation and prioritize climate adaptation for the 44 million people who call the region home.

Getting Technical: How to Make an Underwater Map

The process of creating these maps is a bit similar to completing a massive puzzle piece by piece. TNC scientists, working in partnership with the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Vulcan, Arizona State University and Planet, are assembling more than 30,000 images captured by a “constellation” of Dove satellites that scans the Earth daily. The scientists are combining the satellite imagery with data collected from specific geographies by the Global Airborne Observatory, a specialized aircraft equipped with a high-fidelity spectrometer that detects hundreds of wavelengths of light. These findings are being validated using imagery from aerial drones and divers conducting underwater surveys.

Thanks to comprehensive data from outer space to undersea, the scientists are able to interpret each pixel of every image. From there, they build three-dimensional models of nearshore and coastal habitats throughout the region—revealing the location and condition of coral reefs, seagrass beds and other oases of underwater life for the first time ever. Without the new technology, it would take divers millions of hours to produce similarly detailed habitat maps.

  • From Outer Space to Undersea, Infographics

    Infographics: Mapping Marine Habitats

    From Outer Space to Undersea: Using revolutionary remote sensing technology to advance large-scale coral reef and coastal conservation

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Why Are These Maps So Important?

It is nearly impossible to protect resources effectively without knowing exactly where they are, their condition and the threats they face. But now, Caribbean countries and territories will be able to see a unique visualization of the habitats found beneath the waves surrounding their shores, which will help guide the sustainable use and protection of critical marine resources. The unprecedented detail of these maps will allow conservation scientists and practitioners, fishery managers, governments, educators and other stakeholders to:

  • Identify priority marine areas that need protection and guide sustainable use
  • Quantify the economic and coastal protection value of marine habitats to support policymaking
  • Measure climate change impacts and evaluate threats to design targeted, nature-based solutions
  • Pinpoint sites in need of urgent coral restoration, including those where conditions are optimal for survival and growth of new corals
  • Catalyze conservation action and education by making habitat data readily available

In the Caribbean, the fishing and tourism industries drive economic stability, and they cannot survive without healthy marine habitats. Yet, living coral cover in the region has declined by about 60 percent in the last three decades alone. Approximately 70 percent of people in the region live along its coastlines, but the nearshore habitats naturally designed to protect them from storm impacts are dying faster than science can restore them.

This breakthrough approach to habitat mapping is a key piece in unlocking solutions that can halt and reverse this alarming decline. By providing unprecedented layers of information on coral reefs and other habitats, we gain a new level of understanding that supports smarter conservation at the pace required for meaningful impact—not only for the Caribbean but for marine regions in other parts of the globe.

Scaling Up: The Future of a Breakthrough Approach

Already, the maps are helping island nations protect and restore their underwater habitats. The Dominican Republic became the first country to utilize this novel combination of remote sensing technologies to guide coral restoration, after scientists collected data on the chemical footprint and composition of habitats in the Arrecifes del Sureste Marine Sanctuary with the help of the Global Airborne Observatory.

Thanks to these comprehensive data, TNC and partners were able to identify optimal sites for reef restoration: areas where transplanted corals would be most likely to survive and where healthy habitats would most benefit surrounding ecosystems and coastal communities. In other words, a clearer picture of the sea floor surrounding this Caribbean country permitted scientists to pinpoint sites where restoration efforts would have the greatest positive impact for nature and people. Their insights guided one of the most significant reef restoration initiatives in the country’s history, in which dozens of volunteers from conservation organizations, government agencies and local businesses mobilized to the southeastern coast of the Dominican Republic and planted nearly 3,000 endangered staghorn coral colonies.

As the true value of coral reefs and other marine habitats becomes increasingly recognized, more sectors around the world are mobilizing to save them—not only fishing and tourism but also insurance, pharmaceutical, engineering and tech. And rightfully so: our scientific understanding of Earth’s complex underwater habitats is evolving rapidly, and only revealing more interconnectedness with people and communities.

The new habitat maps, and the technologies involved in producing them, can advance conservation further and faster by allowing us to make more informed and strategic decisions. In capturing a clearer picture of its undersea world, the Caribbean region will be able to chart a new path forward for the preservation of its greatest asset, the ocean, and become more resilient in the face of a changing climate. And as the testing ground of this revolutionary approach, the Caribbean region’s initiative is indeed likely to make waves far beyond its shores for the benefit of endangered habitats—and the people who rely upon them—around the globe.

These maps mean smarter conservation. They empower an entire region to better manage the complex threats facing its ocean. And the benefits will grow exponentially as the maps are used across islands with shared marine ecosystems.

Steve Schill, Ph.D. Lead Scientist, TNC’s Caribbean Division

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Download Infographics

Using revolutionary remote sensing technologies to advance large-scale coral reef and coastal conservation

  • Insights and Uses - Taking to the Skies to Protect the Sea

    Insights and Uses

    Who uses the maps and what they allow us to do

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  • How It Works - Taking to the Skies to Protect the Sea

    How it Works

    How each layer comes together to create the maps

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  • Resolution and Coverage - Taking to the Skies to Protect the Sea

    Resolution and Coverage

    Pixel size and coverage from outer space to undersea

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