Right now is not a great time to be a coral reef. Warming ocean waters are causing bleaching, which is what happens when a coral’s symbiotic microalgae, which give the coral its bright color, die off, causing the coral itself to die. Those warmer temperatures allow for the proliferation of disease, too, and the rising amount of carbon dioxide is leading to acidification of the oceans, which dissolves coral and makes it harder for it to grow. Then there are problems that include overfishing, damaging fishing practices using cyanide and dynamite, pollution from sewage and agriculture, invasive species, and sedimentation from poor agricultural practices.
That’s only part of a long list of the threats against coral, but why are the reefs so important, you may wonder? There are a lot of reasons why protecting coral reefs is urgent. Most people understand that it would be a bad thing if the reefs all died, but not everyone realizes what a direct impact the loss of coral reefs would have on humans. For one thing, coral reefs protect coastlines from damaging waves and tropical storms. Without coral, there’s no buffer against erosion, floods, property damage and even loss of life. The fishing industry depends heavily on the presence of coral reefs, too, as many fish spawn there and juvenile fish spend time there before heading out to sea.
Far more than just humans would be affected by the loss of the reefs, however – they house some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, and many species rely on the reefs for their survival. If you’ve studied biology even a little bit, you’ll likely recall the ripple effect the loss of even one species has on an ecosystem, and the loss of the coral reefs would result in a staggering loss of life below the waves – and above them, too, as other creatures such as birds were deprived of major food sources.
That leads to the question: what’s to be done? Changing human behavior is crucial – taking steps to halt climate change, using less damaging fishing and agricultural practices, etc. But those things take time, and the coral reefs still need to be given a chance to recover, to catch up. Thankfully, we humans have the technology for that. In the waters off the coast of France’s Calanques National Park, a large chunk of 3D printed concrete has just been immersed. It’s not just any chunk of concrete; it’s been specially designed to mimic the structure of a coral reef, with the hope that it will attract fish and other marine life – and, most importantly, free-floating baby coral polyps. If these polyps embed themselves in the concrete and begin to grow, you have the beginnings of a new coral reef.
This particular concrete reef was designed by French marine conservation organization Seaboost and large-scale 3D printing company XtreeE. While neither organization has commented on the material the reef is made of, XtreeE describes it as a “biomimetic, porous” material, similar to coral itself.
The first 3D printed reef was sunk in the Persian Gulf in 2012. Since then, there have been several others, in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Australia and elsewhere. Now it’s a game of wait and see what happens. The reefs are being monitored over the course of several years, and if they successfully attract life forms that build them into living reefs, we could see this kind of project being implemented on a large scale.
So much of the damage done to the environment has been caused by humans and our technology – but it could also be our technology that saves the environment, if we use it right. 3D printing new coral reefs is a great step in the right direction.
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