NOAA 99-054
Contact: Pat Viets


The Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is taking a leading role in using satellites to monitor the health of coral reefs around the world, the agency announced today.

"Several initiatives resulted from a recent workshop that NOAA co-sponsored," said NOAA oceanographer Al Strong, who coordinated the workshop. "One is to use existing data from sources such as NOAA weather satellites, Landsat, the Space Shuttle, and the SPOT satellite to establish data sets that can be used as a baseline for studying coral health. Using existing data also avoids costs involved with launching new satellites."

The workshop, which addressed coral health and explored the use of satellites to monitor coral health, was held in Honolulu last month. Experts from around the world also stressed the need to gain access to and use declassified military data to create a detailed, uniform set of coral reef maps that can be used to study changes in corals over time.

Coral reefs are home to about a million fish and other species. Coral reefs also attract divers and other tourists to tropical coasts. This recreation and travel supports a significant tourism industry dependent on clean waters and healthy coral reefs. Reefs provide billions of dollars in annual revenues to countries such as the United States, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, and Egypt.

In recent years, scientists have documented coral mortality at levels far greater than previously. This mass mortality of corals is largely attributed to widespread coral bleaching associated with the 1997-1998 El Niño and large-scale epidemics of coral disease.

"NOAA satellites carry remote sensing tools to monitor coral bleaching, and we are looking for other ways to monitor coral health," said NOAA Administrator D. James Baker. "Bleaching can be a sign that the coral is being stressed by a number of factors, including pollution, sedimentation, high light levels, reduced water levels, or changes in salinity. NOAA's Hot Spot tracking system uses satellite data to identify areas of the ocean that are conducive to bleaching. It can provide an early warning of coral bleaching events. NOAA is also developing a long-term data stewardship program so that scientists will have easy access to baseline coral reef data generations from now. "

NOAA is also continuing its work with scientists and managers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to learn more about the 1998 bleaching event in the context of Australia's 25 years of research on the Great Barrier Reef. NOAA is also working with Australian climate modelers to develop improved projections of where coral bleaching will occur in the next few decades and the extent to which it will destroy reefs as we know them.

The workshop was sponsored by NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service; NOAA's Coastal Services Center; and the International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management, based in the Philippines.

For more information, and for the workshop's recommendations for action, visit the Web site at: