A Colorful Approach to Investigating the Red Sea: LearnEO! Offers a Lesson Plan to Map Phytoplankton Phenology

An online educational tool called Learn EO! works to provide information and training to help put remote sensing data to use in the Red Sea region.

Coral Reef in the Red Sea. Image Credit: NASA/JSC

Microscopic organisms drive the food chain in the Red Sea, just as they drive many other aquatic ecosystems. Nestled between Africa and Asia, the Red Sea is a large marine inlet, home to multiple endemic species. This unique, highly saline environment contains a diversity of habitats, including striking coral reefs. As average atmospheric temperatures rise in the region, the perseverance of coral reef ecosystems may be threatened on multiple fronts.

One key factor in the function of reef ecosystems is the timing of phytoplankton blooms—a key food source for many coral reef species. Yet, only recently have remote sensing measurements of color in the Red Sea been tied to phytoplankton phenology and density. New research in this area could contribute to management and research strategies designed to help protect the coral reefs of the Red Sea, and LearnEO! is seeking to help disseminate and expand capacity for use of data like these.

Over the last decade, developments in remote sensing technology have allowed researchers to map previously unexplored components of the globe, including many factors invisible to the naked eye. Remote sensing from satellites falls into this category. As the available body of data grows, the European Space Agency (ESA) is working to make these data accessible and useful for decision-makers. Data capacity has increased rapidly in recent years, but these data only reach their full capacity for utility when they are made available across disciplines and to decision-makers in the public and private sectors.

One strategy that the ESA is pursuing to make data more easily sharable is the development of LearnEO!, an online resource for high school, university, and professional development educators. The website offers lesson plans and resources for using satellite data to monitor the environment.

In the latest LearnEO! competition, the prizewinner was a lesson plan on monitoring phytoplankton seasonality. This lesson, based on research by Marie-Fanny and colleagues into ocean color observations in the Red Sea, demonstrates how remote sensing technology allows users to visualize a critical ecosystem component. The lesson plan describes how chlorophyll-a measurements can be used to generate images of ocean color (or in this case, Red Sea colors) and walks educators through the process of opening and reading data files and using phenology indices to quantify timing of phytoplankton blooms. The lesson also covers application of these data, showing how phytoplankton bloom locations can be correlated to proximity to coral reefs using bathymetry data (measurements of depth to ocean floors), creating practical applicability links by describing the importance of phytoplankton in coral reef ecological functioning.

In addition to their role in coral reef preservation, phytoplankton are also important in survival of fish and crustaceans, as well as recreation and tourism in bordering countries. Developers hope that lessons like the one in Learn EO! will help create a generation of students capable of taking data and applying it to the pressing issues in their region.  In the meantime, the lesson is intended to serve as an example demonstrating to other researchers ways that data can be disseminated in an informative, accessible way.