first_imgSatellites, aircraft and scuba divers are creating the first ever high-resolution map of coral reefs throughout the Caribbean region.Layers of data with 10-centimeter (4-inch) resolution will reveal the extent of damage from recent hurricanes and identify pockets of living coral to protect, as well as ailing coral that can be restored.The maps will be used to declare new marine protected areas, guide management plans and select areas for post-hurricane restoration. PUNTA CANA, Dominican Republic — At 8 o’clock on a May morning the Caribbean Sea was calm, offering a clean window to the underwater realm. Flying 2,000 meters (6,560 feet) above the ocean, ecologist Greg Asner’s twin-propeller flying laboratory was at what he calls the “goldilocks distance.” Fly higher and the textured detail of each turquoise patch of coral reef below becomes invisible. Fly lower and the details overwhelm the big picture.At this altitude, above the gemstone-like waters surrounding Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, Asner’s plane can see both entire reefs and individual heads of coral in revolutionary detail. The plane is loaded with nearly a metric ton of sensors and computers that allow it to determine, at 10-centimeter (4-inch) resolution, not just where the coral is but also its health and even its species.Asner, based at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, molded technology first developed by NASA to peer at the chemical composition of alien planets into what may be the most powerful instrument for conservation science here on Earth: the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO), as his plane is called.“Caribbean reefs are getting hammered by hurricanes, coral bleaching and pollution. But the CAO can see the patches of surviving coral that can repopulate this system,” Asner told Mongabay.Greg Asner (left), founder of the Carnegie Airborne Observatory, and Joseph Pollock (right), coral strategy director for The Nature Conservancy, aboard the Carnegie Airborne Observatory. Image by Marjo Aho/TNC.The flight was part of a mission to create the first ever high-resolution map of coral reefs throughout the Caribbean. In addition to the CAO, more than 100 satellites, drones and scuba divers will contribute data to the map, integrating layers of information at multiple scales. The project is a collaboration between Asner’s new Reefscape Project, which studies reefs around the world; the Arlington, Virginia-based conservation group The Nature Conservancy; and the San Francisco-based private satellite company Planet.The resulting map of the Caribbean region’s coral reefs will help decision-makers identify the top priorities for conservation.last_img

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