October 10, 2008

Scientists Use Satellites To Protect Reefs

Scientists are using satellites to expand a network to watch for ocean temperature increases that can harm fragile ecosystems worldwide.

On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said its Coral Reef Watch network had been expanded from 24 locations to 190 locations in the Florida Keys, the Caribbean, Australia, Hawaii, Indonesia, and in other areas across the globe.

The organization monitors ocean temperatures in nearly a dozen coral reefs.  The larger, expanded system uses satellites, instead of deploying devices, to monitor water temperature.

A 2-degree rise in summertime water temperature can cause the tiny creatures that form coral reefs to release algae.  The process is called "bleaching" and upsets the reef's ecosystem.

Coral can recover from mild bleaching, but extended bleaching periods can cause entire colonies to die.  Over 50% of Caribbean coral reefs have already died due to increasing sea temperatures.

"Bleaching is a major threat to the health of endangered coral reef ecosystems across the earth," said Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, NOAA administrator. "The expansion of this critical climate monitoring tool will help us better track, understand and mitigate the impacts of warming waters that contribute to the bleaching damage."

Scientists hope the expanded system will give them advanced warnings of stresses to reefs.  The warnings can help environmental managers limit non-climate related activities around reefs like fishing, or nearby construction.

Scientists are doing their best to protect reefs worldwide from overfishing, pollution, and coastal development.  Doing so can keep reefs healthier, and thus, give the reefs a better chance of surviving bleaching events.

"We just need to build up a new body of knowledge and understanding about what works and what doesn't work," said Roger McManus, vice president for global marine programs for Conservation International. "Then we should be able to improve our management."

Corals act as habitats and breeding grounds for many marine species.  They also act as an overall health indicator for the oceans. 

A study appearing in the journal Science last year, reported that if carbon emissions continued at current rates, corals could be extinct before the turn of the century.


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