A mass bleaching event has turned the usually colorful coral of the Great Barrier Reef, off Australia, a shade of brown. NASA is looking into coral health with a new project using research from airplanes. (XL Catlin Seaview Survey/EPA)

Coral reefs have almost always been studied up close, by scientists in the water looking at small portions of reefs to gather data and knowledge about the larger ecosystems.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is taking a step back and getting a wider view, from about 23,000 feet above. NASA and top scientists from around the world are launching a three-year campaign Thursday to gather new data on coral reefs like never before.

Using specially designed instruments mounted on high-flying aircraft, the scientists plan to map large swaths of coral around the world in hopes of better understanding how environmental changes such as global warming and pollution are affecting these delicate and important ecosystems.

“The idea is to get a new perspective on coral reefs from above, to study them at a larger scale than we have been able to before, and then relate reef condition to the environment,” said Eric Hochberg of the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences. Hochber is principal investigator for the project, which is called the Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (Coral).

Hochberg and the project’s lead NASA scientist, Michelle Gierach, were in Kaneohe Bay on the Hawaiian island of Oahu with the Associated Press on Tuesday to gather baseline data in the water.

The bleaching event, which has been blamed on global warming, has killed an estimated 22 percent of the reef’s corals. The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef system. (XL Catlin Seaview Survey/EPA)

While the primary science will be conducted using instruments that create detailed images of the sea floor from above, the team also must take baseline measurements in the ocean to validate the data, Gierach said.

Coral reefs drive many tourist economies around the world, but they provide much more than pretty places to dive and snorkel, Gierach said. Reefs are critical habitat for the majority of the fish that people eat and also protect shorelines from dangerous storm surges and rising ocean levels.

Recently, scientists have developed medicines from coral reefs, including painkillers that are not habit-forming, Hochberg said.

“Just realizing that though you may not see a coral . . . corals are impacting you, they are globally important,” Gierach said. “We have to understand how they’re changing, so we can make some managed decisions about their future.”

Reefs are among the first ecosystems to be dramatically and directly affected by global warming, according to researchers.

The International Society for Reef Studies Consensus Statement, published in 2015, said as many as 50 percent of coral reefs have been “largely or completely degraded by a combination of local factors and global climate change” over the past few decades.

Julia Baum, assistant professor of biology at the University of Victoria in Canada, has done extensive research on coral reefs and said the data gathered from this kind of project could prove highly valuable for international reef scientists and the conservation community.

Baum said that coral reef science has been limited by the lack of broad data sets like this project plans to provide and that the research could complement information collected in the water if it’s made openly available to the scientific community. Coral Project researchers said all data will be made public.

“As scientific divers, we’re limited by the depth we can work at and the amount of bottom time that we have while we’re diving, so much of underwater marine science, especially on coral reefs, is a painstakingly slow process,” she said.

The Coral team will study the reefs of Hawaii, Palau, the Mariana Islands, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef over the next three years.