22 September 2016

University of Queensland researchers are playing a key role in a NASA airborne mission designed to transform understanding of earth's valuable and ecologically sensitive coral reefs.

The mission has set up shop in Australia for a two-month investigation of the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest reef ecosystem, using UQ’s Heron Island Research Station as one of its bases.

Scientists from NASA's Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) mission and their Australian collaborators discussed the mission's objectives and the insights they expect to glean into the present condition of parts of the Great Barrier Reef and the function of reef systems worldwide.

CORAL's three-year mission combines aerial surveys using state-of-the-art airborne imaging spectrometer technology developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory with in-water validation activities.

UQ School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management scientist Professor Stuart Phinn said CORAL would provide Australian and global coral reef science and management with unique new maps and mapping approaches that would expand efforts to map and understand the condition of the Great Barrier Reef.

Professor Phinn and his UQ colleague Dr Chris Roelfsema are working to build a process to map the entire reef, to better understand ways to manage and protect it.

"Being able to support and collaborate on NASA's CORAL project will enable groups like ours to advance our capabilities and transfer them to Australian science and management agencies," Professor Phinn said.

“Dr Roelfsema is leading a group, working across several schools at UQ, that has just completed a successful test of their mapping method across the southern section of the Great Barrier Reef and is now ready to apply it to the whole reef.

“UQ and CORAL will exchange field data, knowledge and experience to cross-validate mapping and monitoring approaches.”

CORAL principal investigator Dr Eric Hochberg, of the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS), said CORAL offered the clearest, most extensive picture to date of the condition of a large portion of the world's coral reefs.

"This new understanding of reef condition and function will allow scientists to better predict the future of this global ecosystem and provide policymakers with better information for decisions regarding resource management," he said.

The CORAL mission will provide critical data and new models for analysing reef ecosystems from a new perspective.

CORAL will generate a uniform data set for a large sample of reefs across the Pacific Ocean.

Scientists can use these data to search for trends between coral reef condition and the natural and human-produced biological and environmental factors that affect reefs.

Over the next year, CORAL will survey portions of the Great Barrier Reef along with reef systems in the main Hawaiian islands, the Mariana Islands and Palau.

In Australia, CORAL will survey six discrete sections across the length of the Great Barrier Reef, from the Capricorn-Bunker Group in the south to the Torres Strait in the north.

Two locations on the reef – Lizard Island Research Station in the north and Heron Island Research Station in the south – will serve as bases for in-water validation activities.

Media: Professor Stuart Phinn, s.phinn@uq.edu.au, 0401 012 996.