Our Great Dying Reef
Words by Tim Leeson
Photos courtesy of Volvo, The Oceans Agency, Alex Goad & Jessica Gregory
The Great Barrier Reef is fucked. The dramatic effects of climate change to the planet’s largest living structure means the projected seawater temperatures in 2050 are above the threshold that most corals can survive in. Such a dire situation demands innovative responses. A group of designers, including Alessio Erioli, Alex Goad and Jessica Gregory, are exploring corals, examining their forms and proposing methods to mitigate the impact that increasing ocean temperatures and acidification are having on our suffering reef colonies.
Over 450 million people live within 60 kilometres of the world's coral reefs and the majority of them directly or indirectly derive their food and income from them. Many of these people also inhabit low-lying islands or coastal zones that benefit from the wave protection coral reefs provide. The deterioration of coral reef habitats can exacerbate the effects of increasing coastal erosion due to sea level rise and intensifying storm activity associated with climate change.
What’s more, in 2017 Deloitte Access Economics found that, “the Great Barrier Reef has a economic, social and icon asset value of $56 billion. It supports 64,000 jobs and contributes $6.4 billion to the Australian economy.” It’s also one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth and it provides food and shelter to a tremendous array of marine animals. However, the reef’s very biology, and the fact that it’s in such a desperate state, makes effective conservation an extremely complex proposition.
Reef-building coral is a lil’ bit cheeky, insofar as it appears to be a plant, but it’s actually an organism that has mutualistic symbiotic relationship with a photosynthetic algae, called zooxanthellae. The algae live inside the coral tissue and provide energy for the coral polyp, giving the coral its colour and assisting the development of coral’s calcium carbonate skeleton. Coral bleaching occurs when the coral are stressed by a change in environmental conditions. This stress triggers the coral to expel algae, hence the colour loss, and as bleached corals no longer gain energy from photosynthesis, it can lead eventual death of the coral.
The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) explains the current bleaching event; “In 2016, record high seawater temperatures led to record widespread coral bleaching on Australian coral reefs.” Another bleaching event struck again in 2017, impacting a staggering two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef. Researchers point to an increase in bleaching events recorded globally since the 1980s, which, let’s get real, has got everything to do with human-induced changing climate.
In another intriguing twist, corals can reproduce both asexually, when clonal polyps break off from parent polyps to begin new colonies, and sexually. As most corals are hermaphrodites, they can produce both eggs and sperm that are released into the water column simultaneously. Yet, even more remarkably, the coral spawning process only occurs on a single evening each year. To advance coral reef conservation, we need to take advantage of this one-night stand.
Through collaborative research with ecologists, scientists and engineers, designers are contributing to the development of structures that can increase the effectiveness of coral propagation (when a section of coral is taken from a large colony and grafted to a new location) or that provide beneficial habitats for the young coral polyps to develop after spawning.
Co-de-iT’s Alessio Erioli and Alessandro Zomparelli’s 2012 influential research, Emergent Reefs, was motivated by an unexpected opportunity with Enrico Dini and his D-Shape large-scale, 3D printed rock technology produced from sand and a saline binder. Erioli says that, “we ended up designing not just a tool or a single object but a synthetic ecosystem.” Instead of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ form, or set of shapes, Erioli and Zomparelli’s synthetic ecosystem can generate artificial reef topologies dependent on the ocean currents, nutrient potential and further biological factors for individual study sites. “We were studying the patterns and characteristics of the reef environments; the existence of cavities and formations, how their shapes interacted with the environment and the way they were colonised.” The generated forms become habitats for coral and other marine life.
An interest in scuba diving and a fascination with ‘geometric modularity’ led Melbournian Alex Goad to come up with Modular Artificial Reef Structure (MARS) for his Industrial Design Honours project at Monash University. Goad describes MARS as a ‘three dimensional lattice’ for assisting coral farming. Like propagation in plant nurseries, coral farming nurtures a small fragment of coral, attaching it to MARS, until it grows large enough to be broken up into multiple corals again or transplanted to a degraded region. The surface design of MARS allows for easier coral transplantation. Recently, Goad has been installing MARS for a coral propagation program in the tropical waters of Summer Island, Maldives. Goad constructs MARS via 3D printing then slipcasts in ceramic. The hollow forms are filled with marine concrete and steel reinforcement. In the future, Goad suggests that utilising the calcium already present in seawater to 3D print hard structures would be a more sustainable approach.
As a bio-designer from Newport (Wales) Jessica Gregory has always wanted to have a positive impact, and the focus of her work is in materials that are made purely from biological matter, like mycelium or cellulose. Gregory developed Coralise, which is similar in function to MARS. Coralise acts as a coral colonisation scaffolding and as a habitat for other marine life. The configuration of Coralise has been developed to attract coral larvae on the ‘magic night’; coral settlement preferences and natural coral forms have guided the structures typology.
For Gregory, the material selection for Coralise was imperative for the safe propagation of young polyps. Gregory poignantly selected calcium carbonate from previously bleached coral skeletons, giving life back to the reef in a new form. Gregory tested Coralise with the Horniman Museum, London, and their Project Coral programme.
Goad, and his Reef Design Lab, has also been collaborating with the Sydney Institute of Marine Sciences (SIMS) on their Living Seawalls project, lead by Associate Professor Melanie Bishop of Macquarie University, with other collaborators from Macquarie Uni and UNSW Sydney. The project aims to enhance micro-habitat complexity on Sydney Harbour’s seawalls. Similarly to the aforementioned designs, the ridges and hollows found on the Living Seawall tiles seek to enhance species survivorship. This technology benefits oysters, which assist water purification. Volvo Australia recently assisted SIMS, Reef Design Lab and Fibercon with the ongoing Living Seawalls project to develop a tile that is fabricated with 100% recycled plastic and concrete.
But even with innovative reef conservation, the only way to really assist the reef is to drastically reduce our carbon emissions. As Goad highlights, “a lot of articles say that ‘3D printing can save the reefs' and that’s obviously just ridiculous.” The Great Barrier Reef is approximately 344,400 square kilometres and current technology is unable to produce sufficient conservation devices for this immense region. Marine ecologist Maria Vozzo, research associate with SIMS and the Living Seawall, suggests that improved collaboration with scientists, engineers, designers and government could facilitate the construction of coastal engineering structures, like piers or breakwaters, that also promote diverse marine colonisation.
Many scientists are suggesting that even if we do immediately halt carbon emissions, coral will still require substantial assistance to survive the hottest predicted ocean temperatures in 30 years time. We’ve got some of the world’s most brilliant minds trying to protect our incredible reef but it’s futile unless we take collective responsibility and act. So, who’s going to dive in and get wet?
There are many ways to assist with the conservation of the Great Barrier Reef:
The Institute for Future Environments and their many partners are calling for you to become virtual divers of the Reef at virtualreef.org.au
Check out the work from Emergent Reefs, Alex Goad (MARS), Jessica Gregory (Coralise), Reef Design Lab, SIMS and Living Seawalls.
Support causes like 4Ocean and Fight for Our Reef.
Get your community discussing global warming via Climate For Change.