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Drone airplanes are eyes in the sky for coral reefs on the brink of extinction

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WASHINGTON (Circa) — In less than 20 years, marine ecosystems could look much different in the Caribbean. That's according to a comprehensive study conducted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which concluded that the region's coral reefs have declined by more than 50 percent since 1970.

"It's million and millions of years of evolution that we are losing in a few decades," Luis Solorzano, executive director for the Caribbean division at The Nature Conservancy, said. "They are the most threatened ecological system in the oceans."

Solorzano, and others at the Carnegie Institution for Science and Planet, are on a mission to turn the tides by creating the first-ever high-resolution map of coral reefs in the Caribbean basin.

He continued, "It's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to manage what we cannot measure. As we think about adaption and interventions, and how we help these systems adapt to climate change, we need a solid baseline of where they are and what is the condition of those reefs."

Soaring above the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean, a specially designed aircraft collects data about healthy and degraded coral reef ecosystems using satellite imagery. Scientists hope the efforts of the aircraft will fill in much needed gaps of information about coral reefs, so that they can later monitor any changes as well as design management strategies to offset the threats facing the vulnerable species.

Researchers have long pointed to warming temperatures, natural disasters, overfishing and pollution as causes of the decline of coral reefs. But Solorzano says this technology could help identify resilient species of corals that are withstanding such threats.

"We can take those colonies, understand the genetics, the physiology of those colonies, why they withstand heat waves, and then we can reproduce those on land-based nurseries and maybe start repopulating those reefs with heat tolerant corals. And hopefully those genes will spread throughout the populations."

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The science behind the aerial, multi-spectral technology was developed by Greg Asner and used to help understand ecological changes in the Amazon in ways never thought possible. Now scientists hope that the technology will be as successful over water as it was on land.

"This technology is getting us closer to understand that diversity and how we can maintain it," Solorzano said.

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