Photo by Coral Reef Research Foundation

Dressed in a linen shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, oceanographer Eric Hochberg greets me in his small office at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences in St. George’s, Bermuda—a cutting-edge marine laboratory that retains the atmosphere of an Edwardian field station.

Hochberg, though, is anything but casual when he talks about his work: the future of the world’s coral reefs.

Hochberg is the leader of NASA’s new Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) project—the largest aerial survey of coral reefs to date. The three-year project, beginning this month, will give scientists, advocates, and policymakers a detailed look at the conditions in major marine ecosystems in the Pacific Ocean.

To date, most reef research has been conducted with a scuba tank and tape measure; a method that Hochberg says offers only a limited perspective. “It’s like walking in the woods for an hour,” he says, referring to the capacity of a scuba tank, “and trying to understand the entire forest based on a few trees.”

“We need this big picture,” he adds. “We’re talking about global change, and we need to get a handle on it.”

To this end, the CORAL team will use NASA’s Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer (PRISM) to survey Hawai‘i, Palau, the Mariana Islands, and sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Mounted in a Gulfstream jet flying at 8,500 meters, the detector will scan the amount of light that is reflected off the ocean’s underwater surfaces and translate the wavelengths into a map-like graphic, called an image cube, for scientists to analyze. Divers will collect in-water measurements to verify PRISM’s findings.