Coral Reef Ecosystem Studies (CREST) Project

Rachel M. Gregg
Posted on: 4/20/2010 - Updated on: 12/01/2021

Posted by

Rachel Gregg

Project Summary

The Coral Reef Ecosystem Studies (CREST) project investigates the health and resilience of coral reefs to future ecosystem changes, including climate change, in the Florida Keys, U.S. Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico. Its primary purpose is to provide data to inform public policy and best management practices for coral reef conservation and restoration.


Coral reefs provide important ecosystem services, such as shoreline protection, and support economically important industries such as fisheries and tourism. These reefs are stressed by disease, overfishing, pollution, climate change, and ocean acidification. The CREST project examines the interactions between these stressors while improving the understanding of the current status and function of coral reefs and investigating likely future changes in reef ecosystems in the Dry Tortugas, Virgin Islands, and Biscayne National Parks, and selected areas of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The primary goals of CREST are to improve understanding and information about coral health in the region; improve the ability to forecast future changes; and guide management decisions.


Project staff are:

  • mapping and characterizing coral reefs and habitats;
  • identifying responses of corals to climate and sea level changes;
  • identifying causes of coral disease;
  • surveying seafloor erosion;
  • evaluating the role of microbial processes in reef systems;
  • evaluating threats from ocean acidification; and
  • quantifying trends in biogenic calcification.

In climate-specific research, project staff are examining the calcium carbonate skeletons of corals to determine both historic and future environmental changes; variations in the chemical composition of coral skeletons record environmental conditions, such as temperature, salinity, and pH. Other studies include reef sampling to determine microbial load, which affects coral disease and calcification. These data will provide information about the correlation between environmental change and the ability of coral to grow, especially with regard to the effects of ocean acidification and rising sea levels. For example, CREST scientists are measuring calcification rates and testing genetic strains of elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) to evaluate growth capacity in different environments and determine the suitability of potential sites for successful restoration.

An example of how CREST data can inform reef management practices is a recent study about seafloor erosion. CREST scientists surveyed reefs in Hawai‘i, Florida, and the Caribbean and found that sea level rise is being exacerbated by seafloor erosion, and that reef growth is not occurring fast enough to compensate for both of these variables. The results of this study can help inform coastal engineers when evaluating the vulnerability of communities that rely on reefs for storm protection.  

Outcomes and Conclusions

Through this project, the U.S. Geological Survey is contributing information about the effects of climate change on coral reef health and resilience, and providing a framework to examine the effects of interacting stressors on valuable and vulnerable coral reef habitats.


Gregg, R. M. (2020). Coral Reef Ecosystem Studies (CREST) Project [Case study on a project of the U.S. Geological Survey's St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center]. Version 2.0. Product of EcoAdapt’s State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: (Last updated June 2020)

Affiliated Organizations

The U.S. Geological Survey's St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center has a primary focus of investigating processes related to coastal and marine environments and their societal implications related to natural hazards, resource sustainability, and environmental change.

Scientific programs at the St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center:

Almost 70 miles (112.9 km) west of Key West lies a cluster of seven islands, composed of coral reefs and sand, called the Dry Tortugas. Along with the surrounding shoals and waters, they make up Dry Tortugas National Park. The area is known for its famous bird and marine life, its legends of pirates and sunken gold, and its military past.

Biscayne National Park protects four primary ecosystems: the long stretch of mangrove forest along the mainland shoreline, the shallow southern portion of Biscayne Bay, the northernmost Florida Keys and a portion of the world's third-longest living coral reef.

Virgin Islands National Park encompasses over half the island of St. John and almost all of Hassel Island preserving stories of the prehistoric past and over a hundred historic sites that together complete one the most undisturbed and comprehensive Caribbean landscapes.

Virgin Islands Coral Reef Monument was established in January 2001 when a presidential proclamation designated 12,708 acres of federally owned submerged lands to be protected.

In response to a growing awareness of the intrinsic environmental and cultural value of our coastal waters, Congress created the National Marine Sanctuary Program in 1972. The National Marine Sanctuary Act authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to designate specific areas as National Marine Sanctuaries to promote comprehensive management of their special ecological, historical, recreational, and esthetic resources.

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