Nature Conservancy to create first-ever high resolution map of entire Caribbean Basin

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Night planet Earth with precise detailed relief and city lights illuminated by moonlight. South America. Caribbean islands. Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica. Elements of this image furnished by NASA

KINGSTON, Jamaica (CMC) — The Nature Conservancy in the Caribbean has launched a ground-breaking initiative along with the Carnegie Institution for Science and Planet — a company that collects daily satellite imagery on a global scale — to create the first-ever, high-resolution map of the shallow waters of the entire Caribbean Basin.

Unprecedented photos of this mission were recently released showcasing the revolutionary technology.

The goal of this initiative is to understand coral reef ecosystems in a comprehensive way in order to effectively plan for coral reef restoration and protection.

“This advanced technology offers hope for vulnerable reefs, the marine wildlife that inhabits them, and the people whose livelihoods depend on them,” said The Nature Conservancy.

The specialised aircraft, called the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO), has already launched missions in St Croix, US Virgin Islands, where it is mapping critical reef habitats.

The plane will fly two subsequent missions a day for 16 straight days, first in the Virgin Islands and then over the Dominican Republic, gathering detailed data of both healthy and degraded coral reef ecosystems.

The company says the plan is to expand this aerial imaging and mapping throughout the Caribbean.

A vast majority of Caribbean countries and territories lack accurate and up to date maps of their own coral reefs, and this partnership aims to bridge these data gaps in the region.

“Without these baselines it is difficult to track and monitor changes, or to advise management of the most threatened areas that need immediate protection,” says Nature Conservancy.

“This initiative will provide a consistent baseline at a level of accuracy that has never before been attained, acquiring data at multiple scales using state-of-the-art, remote-sensing technologies from drones, planes, and satellites.”

The results, once collected, will be shared with key government and conservation organisations to inform policy and protections.

“Last fall, the Caribbean experienced its most devastating hurricane season in decades as Category 5 storms Irma and Maria tore through the region,” remarked Luis Solórzano, executive director for The Nature Conservancy in the Caribbean. “These storms wreaked havoc not only on land, but also on underwater habitats. Now, more than ever, as coral reefs face an increasing number of threats, it is critical to help Caribbean countries dependent on healthy reefs for their economic prosperity and their safety to protect their marine resources.”

In addition to mapping coral reefs now from the sky, part of this mission includes analysing pre- and post-storm satellite imagery on hurricane-affected islands.

By comparing image mosaics from the Carnegie Institution for Science and Planet, scientists will be able to analyse visuals that were taken before and after the hurricanes to detect impacts on coral reefs from catastrophic hurricanes. In addition, they will be able to demonstrate the critical role that healthy reefs play in protecting vulnerable coastlines from storm events.

“The Carnegie Airborne Observatory is equipped with technology to collect hyper-spectral images using specialised sensors that have the capacity to map the chemical fingerprint and composition of habitats, permitting scientists to map not only individual species, but also detect stress levels,” commented Dr Greg Asner, founder and director of the CAO.

“The information coming out of these flights tells a story about not just coral reef composition, but also about their health — a critical piece of the puzzle in understanding how to best protect them.”

Once the data from the aerial mapping mission are collected, scientists will process the imagery to create highly detailed coastal ecosystem maps that will be compared to the satellite imagery provided by the Carnegie Institution for Science and Planet. To validate and verify accuracy of the satellite and aerial mapping, field data is also being collected using drones, drop cameras and Scuba divers.

Upon completion, these data and maps will be shared with governments, conservation partners, and regional stakeholders to inform resource management and investments in further protecting and restoring coral reefs.

“These maps will be used to better understand the economic value and benefits that coastal habitats provide to people such as storm protection, recreation and tourism, and fisheries.

“Ultimately, the plan is to use these maps to declare new marine-protected areas, design management plans for existing areas, and influence post-hurricane restoration and protection activities for coral reefs — including plans for coral nurseries, planting and spawning,” The Nature Conservancy said.

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