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When Corals Are in Peril, New Sensors Send a Warning
The new monitoring station in the Northern Marianas will help officials understand the complex physical, chemical and biological processes that influence the health of coral reef ecosystems.
Credit: NOAA.

When dangerous conditions threaten the valuable coral reefs near a tiny island north of Guam, a new monitoring system that is the first of its kind in the Pacific Ocean is now providing scientists with an early warning.

The suite of sensors, recently installed near Saipan (part of the Marianas archipelago), monitors environmental factors such as air and sea temperature, wind speed, barometric pressure and light levels. The system sends a steady stream of data back to researchers, alerting them to conditions that could trigger a bleaching event.

Corals "bleach" when stressed by extreme temperatures or increasingly acidic waters, expelling the colorful symbiotic algae that dwell within them. The process turns coral tissue transparent, revealing their white skeleton beneath. Bleaching can cause great harm, and some corals never recover from extreme bleaching events.

Researchers and managers will also use the data to understand the complex physical, chemical and biological processes influencing the health of coral reef ecosystems.

Similar monitoring systems exist in Caribbean and Atlantic tropical waters. This latest station was established by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Pacific Integrated Ocean Observing System (PacIOOS).

"Working with NOAA to establish a full-water column monitoring site in Saipan, with the ability to transmit real-time data to coastal managers in Saipan and around the world, is a great first step to expanding ocean observations throughout the Pacific region,” said PacIOOS director Chris E. Ostrander in a statement.

Coral reefs in the Pacific and throughout the world provide billions of dollars in economic and environmental benefits such as food, protection of the coasts, and tourism.

The benefits provided by coral reefs to Saipan’s tourism industry alone are estimated to be worth more than $42 million, according to a 2006 NOAA and Department of the Interior-funded study.

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