Five amazing ways NASA is helping shark conservation

A spotted whale shark swimming in the ocean. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center with footage of Alexpunker via Motion Array and Tom Cook.

While scientists from our partner institutions focus directly on shark conservation, NASA’s Earth observation satellites collect key information about shark habitat – the ocean. NASA satellites measure the height of the ocean, track currents, monitor marine habitats, and monitor water quality events like harmful algal blooms. Our long-term data sets also help us understand how climate change is affecting the ocean and marine life. NASA shares ocean data with conservation groups, researchers and partners like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

1. NASA satellites help track the movement of marine animals

NASA satellite data combined with field measurements are helping scientists get a better idea of ​​the travel routes of sharks and other marine life. In 2019 with the Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite (CALIPSO), a joint venture between NASA and the French space agency, the Center National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), observed massive animal migration happening on our planet. In this case, marine animals such as fish, krill and squid come from the ocean depths to the surface to feast on microscopic plants called phytoplankton on a daily basis as well as smaller zooplankton and other animals.

CALIPSO satellite lidar

NASA’s CALIPSO satellite uses lidar to measure the movement of marine life in the ocean. Credit: NASA / Timothy Marvel

Studies like this provide information on the food supply available to sharks and how changes in ecosystems could impact the health of sharks and other large marine species. Knowing where marine animals are found using NASA satellite data and field observations also promotes sustainable fishing practices and reduces bycatch.

2. NASA studies the productivity of Earth’s oceans

From space, ships and autonomous underwater vehicles, NASA’s EXport Processes in the Ocean from Remote Sensing (EXPORTS) campaign studies the ocean’s biological pump – the process by which carbon in the atmosphere and the surface of the ocean is sequestered in the depths of the ocean. This process begins at the surface, where phytoplankton extract carbon from the atmosphere by photosynthesis. This kicks off the marine food chain because phytoplankton transform atmospheric carbon into food when eaten by tiny animals called zooplankton. These in turn are eaten by fish which are eaten by other fish and large marine animals including sharks. When fish and marine animals die, they can carry the carbon stored in their bodies to the bottom of the ocean.

EXPORTS Ships Campaign

Three ships used in the EXPORTS campaign – the R / V Sarmiento de Gamboa (in the foreground), positioned close to the RRS James Cook (in the middle) and the RRS Discovery (in the rear) – at a meeting point in the ‘Northeast Atlantic. Credit: Courtesy of Marley Parker

3. Hubble star mapping algorithm tracks whale sharks

In 1986, a Princeton University researcher developed an algorithm to map stars and galaxies captured by NASA’s Hubble Telescope. Now this algorithm has been adapted to recognize the star shaped patterns on spotted skin whale sharks. This allows the algorithm to identify individual whale sharks, which helps scientists keep tabs on these rare 40-foot-long sharks as part of the whale shark identification photo library for purpose. Australian nonprofit ECOCEAN.

Spotted Skin Whale Shark Diver Tracking Tag

A diver attaches a spotting beacon to a spotted-skinned whale shark. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center / Paul Morris

4. NASA measures changes in sea level rise and climate models

NASA has been measuring ocean heights for nearly 30 years, starting with the TOPEX / Poseidon satellite mission from 1992 to 2006 and continuing with the Jason-1, OSTM / Jason-2, Jason-3 and Sentinel-6 Michael missions. Freilich. these satellites can detect changes in ocean height to within an inch, giving extremely accurate sea level measurements. This information is crucial for understanding storm severity, sea level rise and climate models like La Niña, El Niño and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation that impact marine animals. Sea surface height data is also useful for cleaning up oil spills, managing fisheries sustainably, shipping ships, and understanding the behavior of marine animals such as sea lions and star whales. Additionally, sea level measurements are used to derive surface ocean currents and ocean eddies that continually stir and mix the water, altering its biogeochemistry and thereby affecting shark behavior and migration patterns.

Total sea level change between 1992 and 2019

This visualization shows the total sea level change between 1992 and 2019, with orange / red regions indicating where sea level is rising. Credit: NASA Science Visualization Studio

5. NASA is developing new missions to study the Earth’s oceans

NASA has planned three new missions to study the ocean. Scheduled to launch in 2022, the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission will measure small-scale ocean currents and eddies to better understand the mixing and transport of water and nutrients as well as the dispersion of pollution. in the ocean. Monitoring ocean eddies is important for predicting migratory patterns of megafauna, including sharks. SWOT is jointly developed by NASA and CNES with contributions from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the UK Space Agency.

SWOT satellite

Artist’s impression of the future SWOT satellite making observations on the sea surface, even through clouds. Credit: National Center for Space Studies (CNES)

The Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud and Ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission will use next-generation “ocean color” technology to learn more about the phytoplankton that live in the upper ocean. In addition to being the base of the marine food web, phytoplankton play a role similar to terrestrial plants by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen.

The GLIMR (Geosynchronous Littoral Imaging and Monitoring Radiometer) instrument will provide unique observations of the biology, chemistry and ecology of the oceans in the Gulf of Mexico, parts of the southeast coast of the United States and the mouth of the Amazon River where it enters the Atlantic Ocean. In the future, NASA’s next Earth System Observatory will use new and innovative techniques to study all facets of our planet, including more than 70% of the Earth’s surface covered by the ocean.

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