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New research sparks hope for the future of artificial coral reefs

The hard work and dedication of teams working on coral reef restoration projects are finally being met with positive results, according to a new study by The Conversation.

This summer was a particularly devastating one for one of the planet’s rarest and most fragile ecosystems – coral reefs.

In September 2023, Earth’s average temperature exceeded the critical 1.5C threshold, momentarily breaching the limit set by world leaders who have promised to combat long-term global heating.

This persistent warming poses not only a grave threat to coral reefs and the abundant marine life which lives amongst them, but also to coastal communities that rely on marine ecosystems for food security, storm protection, tourism, and their overall economic stability.

Even by the most optimistic projections, The Intergovernmental Panel suggests that climate change may very well lead to the deterioration of up to two-thirds of the world’s coral reefs. Which is, of course, very disheartening to imagine.

However, new research shows that artificial reefs are showing promising results in functioning as natural coral reefs. Its findings have shown that they are able to replicate some of the critical functions of natural reefs, given enough time to flourish.

Approaches to Coral Reef Conservation - Coral Reef Alliance

Artificial reef structures, often made from concrete and other hard materials, are already known to be successful in attracting marine life thanks to their unique structures and rough surfaces.

Still, many marine scientists had doubts about whether they would be able to mimic the array of complex biological processes that are carried out by natural coral reefs.

This is important to consider, especially when the goal of artificial reefs is to be able to provide a home for an array of marine species in the event that natural reefs succumb to bleaching or die out completely.

Thanks to a recent study published by The Conversation, it seems that artificial reefs are beginning to mimic some of the key functions performed by natural reefs, with improvements expected as time goes on.

One important function witnessed occurring amongst animals living on artificial reefs is the rapid processing of nutrients found in natural waste and those expelled by dead organisms.

This process is vital to reef health, as an overgrowth of algae would prevent them from getting the essential sunlight they need to grow.

File:Karimunjawa shallow reef.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

To observe whether this was taking place, the researchers compared nutrient levels and storage between natural and artificial reefs in Bali, Indonesia. Over 15,000 reefs have been set down in this area so far, covering an area roughly the size of two football pitches.

While the researchers noted that artificial reefs showed promise in recycling various nutrients, they lagged in carbon storage compared to natural reefs. They predict that this disparity may be due to a lack of variation in the abundance of invertebrate species.

That said, it is believed that more important processes carried out by natural reefs will start to emerge amongst the man-made reefs over time. It is also promising that artificial reefs are proving themselves to be highly productive ecosystems.

The study brings gratification for those working on reef restoration projects, but also for the future of biodiversity and humanity.

While it’s true that artificial reefs cannot replace the urgent need to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they offer hope for the future in which increasingly warm water temperatures are expected.