Astronaut Photography of Coral Reefs

Mark D. Spalding, Corinna Ravilious and Edmond P. Green
University of California Press 2001           ISBN: 0-520-23255-0
Visit the book details >>
Link to NASA Press Release >>

World Atlas of Coral Reefs World Atlas of Coral Reefs
Astronaut photographs formed core visual content for the World Atlas of Coral Reefs published by the University of California Press. All 84 of the original images and captions can be viewed here.

Astronaut Photography of Coral Reefs:
By Julie A. Robinson and Marco N. Noordeloos

     Astronauts have been photographing our planet through spacecraft windows ever since the beginning of human spaceflight. To date, nearly 400 000 photographs have been taken by astronauts on NASA missions using hand-held cameras. Most photographs are in natural color and, due to selective photography by astronauts, tend to have relatively low cloud cover. They are taken from a variety of look angles out of the spacecraft including near vertical views down at Earth, low oblique views at an angle, and high oblique views that include the horizon. Once converted to digital form, these images typically have pixel sizes of 20-80 m, depending on the lens used, look angle, and the resolution at which the image is scanned (see discussions of the images and database in Lulla et al. 1996, Robinson et al. in review).

     Earth observation training for astronauts includes ecological, geological, geographic, oceanographic, environmental, and meteorological phenomena. Not surprisingly, the photographs they bring back to Earth are used by scientists of many different disciplines. Near-vertical or low-oblique angle photographs can be digitized at high resolution (2400 ppi, 10.6 mm/pixel) and used as three-band (red, green, blue) remote sensing images in the same way a scientist would use Landsat or SPOT data. Image processing techniques such as supervised and unsupervised classification and texture analysis can be applied to astronaut photographs to determine land use, land cover, or change over time (e.g., Webb et al. in press).

     Concurrently, the nearly 30 000 photographs of coral reef areas taken by astronauts on board the Space Shuttle (Robinson et al. 2000) provide a valuable, but underutilized, data source for coral reefs scientists and managers. To facilitate the use of these public domain images, NASA's Earth Sciences and Image Analysis laboratory has been collaborating with the International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management (ICLARM) to include astronaut-acquired photographs in ReefBase: A Global Database On Coral Reefs (McManus and Vergara 1998). Georeferenced Space Shuttle images were also used in a prototype for a ReefBase Geographic Information System (GIS), and provided an excellent visual tool for displaying spatial information related to coral reefs (Robinson et al. 2000).

     Astronaut photographs of tropical coastal areas may contain information on submerged features, including coral reefs, up to depths of about 15 m in clear waters. Previous research efforts have shown that astronaut photographs can aid in estimating coral reef locations and extent on national, regional and global scales, and allow characterization of major geomorphological rim and lagoon features (Andréfouët et al. 2000, in preparation). They can be combined with traditional satellite data to help distinguish between clouds and lagoon features such as pinnacles (Andréfouët and Robinson, in review). Furthermore, astronaut photographs may provide reef scientists and managers with information on the location and extent of river plumes and sediment run off, or facilitate identification of land cover types, including mangroves (Webb et al., in press).

     Photographs included in the section were selected based on several criteria. The primary consideration of the editors was that the photographs represent a worldwide distribution of coral reefs, have extremely low visual interference by cloud cover, and display a spatial scale reasonable for examining reef-related features. Once photographs were selected, they were digitized from 2nd generation copies. The color and contrast were hand corrected to an approximation of natural color (required to account for spectral differences between photographs due to the color sensitivities of films used, and differences in sun angle and exposure of the photographs). None of the photographs shown here have been georeferenced to correct them to a map projection and scale. Any distortions in features due to slightly oblique look angles when the photographs were taken through spacecraft windows remain. When feasible, near vertical photographs have been rotated so that north is toward the top. An approximate scale bar and north arrow have added using distinctive features on each photograph with reference to a 1:1,000,000 scale navigation chart.

     Astronaut photographs provide a unique source of moderate resolution reef remote sensing data because of their global coverage and (immediate) availability in the public domain. The database of photographs can be searched an browsed online and high-resolution digital copies of photographs in this atlas can be accessed via the Website of Earth Science and Image Analysis at NASA's Johnson Space Center:

Images & Captions by Chapter:
Ch. 1 | Ch. 3 | Ch. 4 | Ch. 5 | Ch. 6 | Ch. 7 | Ch. 8 | Ch. 9 | Ch. 10 | Ch. 11 | Ch. 12 | Ch. 13 | Ch. 14

Chapter 1, The World of Coral Reefs:

STS055-82-63 STS055-82-63:   Request high resolution version >>
Midway Islands [STS055-82-63, 1993].

Top >>

Chapter 3, Reef Mapping:

STS099-305-12 STS099-305-12:   Request high resolution version >>
European Space Agency Astronaut Gerhard PJ Thiele photographs Earth from the Space Shuttle Endeavor in February 2000 [STS099-305-12].

Top >>

Chapter 4, Northern Caribbean:

STS095-743-33 STS095-743-33:   Request high resolution version >>
Broad view of the Florida peninsula, with some of the reefs of the northern Bahamas visible to the right [STS095-743-33].

STS038-85-103 STS038-85-103:   Request high resolution version >>
Detailed view of the western Florida Keys, clearly showing the intense human development, including airstrips and roads, as well as sediments in the surrounding waters [STS038-85-103, 1990].

STS055-73-38 STS055-73-38:   Request high resolution version >>
Long Island, Bahamas [STS055-73-38, 1993].

STS095-705-61 STS095-705-61:   Request high resolution version >>
San Salvador, Rum Cay and Conception Island [STS095-705-61, 1998].

STS050-82-98 STS050-82-98:   Request high resolution version >>
The Caicos Bank. Much of the central bank is dominated by sand, but there are also important seagrass and mangrove communities [STS050-82-98, 1992].

Top >>

Chapter 5, Western Caribbean:

STS062-84-70 STS062-84-70:   Request high resolution version >>
Grand Cayman. The shallow lagoon is surrounded by extensive and important mangrove areas [STS062-84-70, 1994].

STS030-71-9 STS030-71-9:   Request high resolution version >>
Bahia La Paz, in the south of Baja California. Althought there are important marine communities and some corals, true reef development is highly limited [STS030-71-9, 1989].

STS060-85-W STS060-85-W:   Request high resolution version >>
The Belize Barrier Reef and the three offshore atolls [STS060-85-W, 1994].

ISS001-E-5317 ISS001-E-5317:   Request high resolution version >>
Ambergris Cay. The Belize Barrier Reef connects to the Yucatan Peninsula and becomes a fringing reef [ISS001-E-5317, 2001].

STS050-80-52 STS050-80-52:   Request high resolution version >>
Roatan, in the Bay Islands, Honduras [STS050-80-52, 1992].

STS068-168-282 STS068-168-28:   Request high resolution version >>
Broad view of the Galapogos Islands, with Fernandina and Isabela in the fore. Coral reef development in these islands is restricted to very small structures [STS068-168-28, 1994].

STS080-718-46 STS080-718-46:   Request high resolution version >>
The Serrana Bank, Columbia. An isolated reef structure in the Caribbean Sea [STS080-718-46, 1996].

NM23-729-782 NM23-729-782:   Request high resolution version >>
Nuevitas Bay in northeast Cuba. The fringing reefs offshore are clearly visible, while there are important mangrove communities around the lagoon [NM23-729-782, 1997].

NM23-729-780 NM23-729-780:   Request high resolution version >>
Golfo de Guacanayabo in southeast Cuba. Reef development in this shallow water has formed complex reticulated structures [NM23-729-780, 1997].

STS065-95-82 STS065-95-82:   Request high resolution version >>
Portland Bight in southern Jamaica. This important area for coral reefs and mangroves was declared a protected area in 1999, and has full community involvement in its management [STS065-95-82, 1994].

Top >>

Chapter 6, Eastern Caribbean and Atlantic:

STS026-35-11 STS026-35-11:   Request high resolution version >>
The island of Barbuda, Lesser Antilles has extensive fringing reefs [STS026-35-11, 1988].

STS060-84-56 STS060-84-56:   Request high resolution version >>
This Ile de la Gonave, in Haiti, has a number of important reefs [STS060-84-56, 1994].

STS054-74-49 STS054-74-49:   Request high resolution version >>
St. Croix, US Virgin Islands. Wide areas of shallower water can clearly be seen around the island [STS054-74-49, 1993].

STS064-76-BB STS064-76-BB:   Request high resolution version >>
Antigua is surrounded by intermittent banik barrier reef structures, a number of which fall within protected areas [STS064-76-BB, 1994].

STS092-316-12 STS092-316-12:   Request high resolution version >>
The Grand Cul-de-Sac Marin in Guadeloupe hasi mportant mangrove, seagrass and patch and barrier reef communities [STS092-316-12, 2000].

STS051-72-95 STS051-72-95:   Request high resolution version >>
Fringing reefs around Barbados have declined over many decades although there are still submerged reefs off the west and southern coasts [STS051-72-95, 1993].

STS077-719-105 STS077-719-105:   Request high resolution version >>
The reefs of Los Roques in Venezuela, a large marine protected area where coral cover remains high [STS077-719-105, 1996].

STS075-706-41 STS075-706-41:   Request high resolution version >>
The waters around Bonaire are one of theb est known marine parks in the Caribbean [STS075-706-41, 1996].

STS054-86-1 STS054-86-1:   Request high resolution version >>
Some of the islands and reefs of the Abrolhos Archipelago. Additional structures, including the marine park, lie further offshore [STS054-86-1, 1993].

Top >>

Chapter 7, Western Indian Ocean:

STS026-42-85 STS026-42-85:   Request high resolution version >>
The Zanzibar Channel in Tanzania, with numerous important patch reefs [STS026-42-85, 1988].

STS026-42-87 STS026-42-87:   Request high resolution version >>
The Rufiji Delta, showing the large inputs of sediments, but also the important areas of mangrove forest [STS026-42-87, 1988].

STS065-84-92 STS065-84-92:   Request high resolution version >>
One of the best known reefs in Madagascar is the Grand Recif, a barrier reef close to Tulear [STS065-84-92, 1994].

STS033-71-94 STS033-71-94:   Request high resolution version >>
Terrigenous sediments impact or inhibit reef development along considerable lengths of Madagascar's coast, as here at the Mangoky Delta. Sedimentation has been greatly increased by poor landuse practices often far inland [STS033-71-94, 1989].

STS51D-41-3 STS51D-41-3:   Request high resolution version >>
Mayotte has a number of fringing reefs and is almost completely encircled by its barrier reef [STS51D-41-3, 1985].

STS068-248-44 STS068-248-44:   Request high resolution version >>
Aldabra Atoll is a raised atoll in the southwest Seychelles and a World Heritage Site. There are many unique species on land, including the last giant tortoises in the region, while the reefs are important and relatively pristine [STS068-248-44, 1994].

STS033-76-43 STS033-76-43:   Request high resolution version >>
The bank of shallow water around Providence and Cerf Islands has the appearance of a true platform reef, although recent studies have shown that there is very little living coral on its seaward margins, while the surface is dominated by seagrass [STS033-76-43, 1989].

STS103-731-80 STS103-731-80:   Request high resolution version >>
Mauritius has fringing reefs on most of its coastline, but also a barrier reef in the southeast [STS103-731-80, 1999].

STS033-75-92 STS033-75-92:   Request high resolution version >>
In addition to the main islands of Mauritius and Rodrigues, Mauritius also administers a large area of remote reefs, notably the Carajos Bank [STS033-75-92, 1989].

Top >>

Chapter 8, Central Indian Ocean:

STS033-76-60 STS033-76-60:   Request high resolution version >>
Pamban island in the Gulf of Mannar. This region has some of the most important coral reefs off the mainland coast of India [STS033-76-60, 1989].

STS081-E-5863 STS081-E-5863:   Request high resolution version >>
The atolls of Felidu, Wataru and Malaku typify the many atolls of this coral reef nation. The lagoons include numerous patch reefs and circular "farros" [STS081-E-5863, 1997].

STS056-152-160 STS056-152-160:   Request high resolution version >>
A broad view of the tight arrangement of atolls in the central Maldives, clearly following two parallel chains [STS056-152-160, 1993].

STS038-86-105 STS038-86-105:   Request high resolution version >>
The southernmost atoll of Diego Garcia includes a major US military base. This atoll is also notable for the narrow but clearly continuous island following the atoll rim [STS038-86-105, 1990].

Top >>

Chapter 9, Middle Eastern Seas:

STS040-78-88 STS040-78-88:   Request high resolution version >>
The northern Red Sea and Sinai Peninsula. Fringing reefs line many of these coastlines but are often too narrow to be visible at this scale. Shallow platform reefs are visible in the mouth of the Gulf of Suez [STS040-78-88, 1991].

STS026-41-59 STS026-41-59:   Request high resolution version >>
Reefs and islands in the southern Gulf of Suez [STS026-41-59, 1988].

STS038-77-11 STS038-77-11:   Request high resolution version >>
The Al Wadj Bank. In addition to fringing and barrier reefs, this area includes important seagrass and mangrove communities [STS038-77-11, 1990].

STS062-90-81 STS062-90-81:   Request high resolution version >>
The Red Sea coastline running north from Jeddah. Although reefs have been badly disrupted as this city has grown, important fringing and patch reefs remain to north and south [STS062-90-81, 1994].

STS061-93-12 STS061-93-12:   Request high resolution version >>
The southern Red Sea, including the narrow straits of Bab el Mandeb, with the Gulf of Aden [STS061-93-12, 1993].

STS052-153-131 STS052-153-131:   Request high resolution version >>
The Arabian Gulf [STS052-153-131, 1992].

STS078-748-11 STS078-748-11:   Request high resolution version >>
The island of Bahrain, together with platform reef structures. Active coral growth is limited to only small areas of these platforms [STS078-748-11, 1996].

STS080-707-77 STS080-707-77:   Request high resolution version >>
Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates. These waters have some of the highest salinities in the Gulf, and wide areas are unsuitable for coral growth [STS080-707-77, 1996].

STS078-748-10 STS078-748-10:   Request high resolution version >>
The port of Dammam in Saudi Arabia, showing intensive coastal development [STS078-748-10, 1996].

Top >>

Chapter 10, Southeast Asia:

STS026-41-86 STS026-41-86: Request high resolution version >>
Volcanoes such as Muria on Java are widespread [STS026-41-86, 1988].

STS059-235-31 STS059-235-31: Request high resolution version >>
Thailand's once extensive mangrove forests have been widely replaced by agricultural and prawn farms [STS059-235-31, 1994].

STS093-708-62 STS093-708-62: Request high resolution version >>
Deforestation and forest fires have led to large increases in sedimentation in Sarawak and other parts of Malaysia [STS093-708-62, 1999].

STS056-155-242 STS056-155-242: Request high resolution version >>
Jakarta produces considerable quantities of sedimentation and pollution. The impacts of these on coral cover and diversity decline with distance across the reefs of Kepulauan Seribu [STS056-155-242, 1993].

STS050-97-65 STS050-97-65: Request high resolution version >>
The Mahakam River produces vast quantities of sediment which inhibit coral reef development over a wide area [STS050-97-65, 1992].

STS069-709-42 STS069-709-42: Request high resolution version >>
Southern Sulawesi, with a number of reefs clearly visible [STS069-709-42, 1995].

STS038-75-43 STS038-75-43: Request high resolution version >>
Luang and Ukenao Atolls to the east of East Timor [STS038-75-43, 1990].

STS61A-40-70 STS61A-40-70: Request high resolution version >>
Bongo Island lies sufficiently far from the major riverine sedimentation associated with the adjacent areas of Mindanao to allow fringing reefs to develop [STS61A-40-70, 1985].

STS055-92-3 STS055-92-3: Request high resolution version >>
Tung-Sha Atoll [STS055-92-3, 1993].

STS080-755-79 STS080-755-79: Request high resolution version >>
Fringing reefs around Okinawa have been severely damaged or destroyed by sedimentation [STS080-755-79, 1996].

STS068-239-89 STS068-239-89: Request high resolution version >>
Taiwan's Pen-Hu Islands [STS068-239-89, 1994].

Top >>

Chapter 11, Australia:

STS046-77-31 STS046-77-31: Request high resolution version >>
The reefs of the northern Great Barrier Reef where the continental shelf is relatively narrow [STS046-77-31, 1992].

STS035-76-44 STS035-76-44: Request high resolution version >>
The North West Cape is bordered by Australia's longest fringing reef, the Ningaloo Reef [STS035-76-44, 1990].

STS060-75-25 STS060-75-25: Request high resolution version >>
A number of reefs, including Ashmore Reef, lie right om the edge of the continental shelf in the far northwest of Australia [STS060-75-25, 1994].

STS093-702-70 STS093-702-70: Request high resolution version >>
The Houtman Abrolhos have a very high diversity of species considering their southerly latitude, but also incorporate more temperate species and macroalgal communities [STS093-702-70, 1999].

STS049-75-43 STS049-75-43: Request high resolution version >>
The northern edges of the Great Barrier Reef, showing the ribbon reefs with deltaic channels cutting through them [STS049-75-43, 1992].

STS043-151-77 STS043-151-77: Request high resolution version >>
To the south the coastal shelf of the Great Barrier Reef widens considerably around the vast complex of the Swain and Pompey Reefs, before narrowing again around the small Capricorn group [STS043-151-77, 1991].

STS046-90-9 STS046-90-9: Request high resolution version >>
The vast atoll structure of Lahou Reef in the Coral Sea [STS046-90-9, 1992].

Top >>

Chapter 12, Melanesia:

STS038-74-86 STS038-74-86:   Request high resolution version >>
Ouvea, New Caledonia, a spectacular atoll formation which has tilted and uplifted along one edge [STS038-74-86, 1990].

STS065-92-50 STS065-92-50:   Request high resolution version >>
The Calvados Barrier Reef is a spectacular structure, here encicling Sudest Island [STS065-92-50, 1994].

STS065-92-50 STS068-244-94:   Request high resolution version >>
East Rennell, a World Heritage Site, is an uplifted atoll, with the brackish Lake Tegano filling the former lagoon [STS068-244-94, 1994].

STS033-73-61 STS033-73-61:   Request high resolution version >>
The world's second largest barrier reef encircles Grande Terre [STS033-73-61, 1989].

STS027-32-34 STS027-32-34:   Request high resolution version >>
This broad view shows northern Viti Levu and western Vanua Levu, including the complex platform reef structures along the northern shores of both islands [STS027-32-34, 1988].

Top >>

Chapter 13, Micronesia:

STS080-707-26 STS080-707-26:   Request high resolution version >>
Ngulu Atoll [STS080-707-26, 1996].

STS044-93-33 STS044-93-33:   Request high resolution version >>
Pohnpei, with its fringing and barrier reefs, with adjacent atolls [STS044-93-33, 1991].

STS106-720-77 STS106-720-77: Request high resolution version >>
Palau's southern lagoon [STS106-720-77, 2000].

STS055-96-S STS055-96-S: Request high resolution version >>
Bikini Atoll, with the crater in the reef flat from a nuclear test clearly visible in the lagoon edge of the reef flat to the northwest [STS055-96-S, 1993].

STS067-726-94 STS067-726-94: Request high resolution version >>
Much of Kirimati's lagoon is infilled and it has one of the world's largest atoll land areas [STS067-726-94, 1995].

Top >>

Chapter 14, Polynesia:

STS080-750-76 STS080-750-76: Request high resolution version >>
Rangiroa Atoll, Tuamotu Islands, French Polynesia, is one of the largest atolls in the Pacific, at 1,800 sqaure kilometers [STS080-750-76, 1996].

STS068-252-50 STS068-252-50: Request high resolution version >>
The Vava'u Islands and reefs in nothern Tonga [STS068-252-50, 1994].

STS055-97-58 STS055-97-58: Request high resolution version >>
Suwarrow Atoll, an isolated atoll in the northern Cook Islands [STS055-97-58, 1993].

STS055-73-J STS055-73-J: Request high resolution version >>
Broad view of the western Tuamotu, including five of the larger atolls: Arutua, Apataki, Kaukura, Toau and Fakarava [STS055-73-J, 1993].

STS068-258-45 STS068-258-45: Request high resolution version >>
A barrier reef with broad reef flats has developed around Uturoa, Society Islands. Some of the channels through the barrier reef can be seen to correspond to inlets and river mouths of the adjacent island, a common occurence on some barrier reefs [STS068-258-45, 1994].

STS065-96-7 STS065-96-7: Request high resolution version >>
Oahu, Hawaii [STS065-96-7, 1994].

Top >>



  • Andréfouët S., J. A. Robinson, G. C., Feldman, F. E. Muller-Karger, C. Hu, and B. Salvat. 2000. Comparison of space sensors for estimation of coral reef areas in South Pacific atolls. Abstracts 9th Int. Coral Reef Symposium, Bali, Indonesia, October 2000, p. 232.

  • Andréfouët, S., and J. A. Robinson. Improving cloud detection in satellite images of coral reef environments using Space Shuttle photographs and High-Definition Television. In review.

  • Lulla K. P., et al. 1996. The Space Shuttle Earth Observations Photography Database: an underutilized resource for global environmental sciences. Environmental Geosciences 3:40-44.

  • McManus, J. W., and S. G. Vergara, editors. 1998. ReefBase: A Global Database on Coral Reefs and their Resources, Version 3.0, CD-ROM. International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management, Manila, Philippines.

  • Robinson, J. A., G. C. Feldman, N. Kuring, B. Franz, E. Green, M. Noordeloos, and R. P. Stumpf. 2000. Data fusion in coral reef mapping: working at multiple scales with SeaWiFS and astronaut photography. Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Remote Sensing for Marine and Coastal Environments, Vol. 2, pp. 473-483.

  • Robinson, J. A., D. A. Liddle, J. Caruana, C. A. Evans, and D. L. Amsbury. Astronaut-acquired orbital photographs as digital data for remote sensing: spatial resolution. In review.

  • Webb, E. L., Ma. A. Evangelista, and J. A. Robinson. Digital land use classification using Space Shuttle-acquired orbital photographs: a quantitative comparison with Landsat TM imagery of a coastal environment, Chanthaburi, Thailand. Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing, In press.

Back to Online Publications