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Coral reefs are one of Earth's most diverse ecosystems. They provide significant ecological, economic, and societal benefits valued, globally, at about USD$9.8 trillion each year (de Groot et al. 2012, Costanza et al. 2014). Unfortunately, reefs worldwide are threatened by an increasing array of impacts, primarily from global climate change, unsustainable fishing practices, and land-based pollution. First observed in the early 1980s, mass coral bleaching has become one of the most visible and damaging marine ecological impacts of persistently rising ocean temperatures. Bleaching is the process by which corals lose the symbiotic algae (zooxanthellae) that give them their distinctive colors and main energy sources. If a coral is severely bleached, disease and death become likely. Severe coral bleaching has become more extensive, frequent, and intense. This can be seen in the acceleration of heat stress events that cause mass bleaching, and in new multi-decadal bleaching observation datasets. As manifested by the devastating 2014-2017 global coral bleaching event (now considered the longest, most widespread and most damaging coral bleaching event on record), mass bleaching events around the globe are often lasting many months; are becoming an annual event; and are impacting coral reefs that never bleached before. It's clear that remote monitoring of coral reefs and the development of actionable intelligence are critical for early detection, on-the-ground response, communication, and future resilience planning to better protect these ecosystems from further degradation and loss.
In response to these concerns and management needs, and to enhance coral reef resilience in a warming world, NOAA established the Coral Reef Watch (CRW) program in 2000. For more than 20 years, NOAA CRW has utilized remote sensing, modeled and in situ data to observe, predict, and report to its users on the coral reef environment worldwide. CRW provides the only global early-warning system of coral reef ecosystem environmental changes. Its near real-time satellite products and modeled Outlook predictions have successfully and accurately monitored and predicted all major mass coral bleaching events observed globally since 1997, while also providing other critical information to users, especially during periods of severe oceanic heat stress.
Marine resource managers, scientists, decision makers, in-water coral reef monitoring networks, and other coral reef stakeholders rely on CRW's satellite and modeled products and alerts to: predict and monitor in near real-time changes in thermal stress in the coral reef environment; prepare and prioritize resources for events (e.g., mass coral bleaching or disease) that have long-term, ecologically-significant impacts on coral and reef health and function; communicate, quickly and broadly, among agencies, the press, and the public, changes in the status of local reefs; implement timely, protective responses and adaptation actions; analyze climate change impacts (e.g., bleaching, disease, and mortality) on coral reefs; and assess when specific reefs are vulnerable or resilient to anthropogenic climate change and its impacts. Using the information the CRW team and its products provide, users not only activate their coral bleaching & disease response plans, incident action plans, and associated in-water monitoring networks, but they also reduce local stressors (e.g., by closing scuba diving and fishing areas), rescue native and rare corals, and shade/cool key nursery reefs. CRW's satellite and modeled products support conservation, restoration, and resilience-based research and management projects that aim to protect and/or restore coral reefs in a rapidly warming world. In times of low or no heat stress, users also apply CRW products to identify appropriate locations for and implement conservation and restoration initiatives, to give transplanted corals or corals grown in situ the best chance at survival. Additionally, our work informs many national and international assessments of coral reef conditions.
NOAA CRW is uniquely qualified to provide essential environmental intelligence. Its extensive partnership network with data providers, scientists, and coral reef managers allows CRW to leverage key partner efforts in the U.S. and internationally, to undertake research to develop the best possible products for its users, and to better understand how stakeholders use its tools. CRW works closely with its users throughout product conceptualization, development, implementation, and operationalization, providing training in appropriate product use, and garnering feedback to improve management tools. This places CRW at the forefront of providing services to improve understanding of climate change threats to coral reefs, and establishes sound practices for the use of its products to enhance resilience-based coral reef management.
CRW is part of the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program and the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service. A brief history of CRW's early years is featured in "NOAA Celebrates 200 Years of Science, Service, and Stewardship".
CRW's satellite product suites are a key component of NOAA's monitoring efforts for coral reef ecosystems, including the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program.