Picture this: You’re on vacation at the beach and decide to go snorkelling. You breathe in the sea air and salt and dive in, letting the warm water engulf your body. You look down, and the sun is glimmering off the millions of specs of sand beneath your feet. You swim on, headed for the reef that you know is just a few meters in front of you—at least that’s what you read about, and the reason you came here. You keep swimming, and eventually you make it to the reef. Only, it’s not what you imagined. Not even close. It’s a bright white wall, and its stark appearance isn’t the only thing that’s noticeably changed. There’s also no life. No fish, no sea anemones, no urchins, and no clams. There’s nothing.
This is a reality that Reef Design Lab out of Australia is hoping will never come to fruition. Designer Alex Goad has used the new technology of 3D printing to create MARS, or Modular Artificial Reef Structure. The artificial reef, which can be printed in 24 hours or less, is made of ceramic and is printed directly off real coral reefs. This allows the structure to maintain a strong base for the attachment of baby coral polyps and allows marine life homes and places to hide that mimic their natural ecosystem—something that previous artificial reefs have failed to do.
The largest MARS yet was submerged off the coast of the Maldives in August. The structure was based on similar corals that are native to the region. Hopes for the structure are that more resilient coral polyps will attach themselves to the 3D printed reef and bring new life to the area. The Maldives is the largest atoll in the world with the seventh largest coral reef system, but it was dramatically affected during the 2016 El Niño event. The El Niño caused the waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans to dramatically heat. When the waters warm unexpectedly, coral expel the algae that lives within them, leaving a bleached white skeleton.
If the 3D printed prototypes prove beneficial, it could be a huge leap for reef systems around the world. Although it is not a permanent fix, it is a step in the right direction. As researchers begin to discover which corals are more heat tolerant, they can start to transplant and farm these corals, which will allow many of the reefs around the world to rebuild themselves. The artificial reefs can also be used as wave-breaking barriers for storm surges when shorelines are depleted from previous or upcoming disasters. It seems even the most pessimistic of people— the locals who fish these reefs on a daily basis—are giving them a chance. At this point, they’ll take as much help to keep their waters alive as they can get.
Do you believe that newer technologies can help in some ways to save our planet, and if so, how?
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