To say that the ocean we have known in our lifetimes is already gone is not doomsaying or pessimism. It’s a realistic assessment of where we stand, now. On Feb. 19, the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced that for the first time in recorded history the world passed the threshold of 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, halfway to the Paris treaty’s controversial 2 degree Celsius threshold, a point at which, once it becomes the average, a recent paper in Nature Geoscience reports all the world’s coral reefs will already be gone. Some estimates have us on track to speed past that 2 degree Celsius threshold in the next 20 years, but just a few days ago the planet briefly heated all the way up to the dreaded 2 degree Celsius, leaving climate scientists reeling.
Given the scope of devastation under way in our ocean, it’s hard to know whether new technologies like 3D printed reefs can make a difference. A bit like aquatic birdhouses, artificial reefs are often designed with a certain species in mind (red snapper in Bahrain), but they provide shelter for myriad species, including algae, anemones, octopus, and crab. If molded concrete units are the Soviet-era apartment blocks of the sea, the 3D printed unit off Bahrain is an aquatic Craftsman, the buff surface carefully grooved and pitted to attract free-floating baby coral polyps—the hope being that one day those artificial limbs might be carpeted in living coral. Similarly, a new system of 3D printed reef soon to be unveiled by Reef Design Labs, co-founded by Reef Arabia founder Dave Lennon, features interlocking units with a porcelain coating that boasts “dimples” and “a chemical makeup similar to coral” that may attract baby coral polyps.
While promising as a substrate for baby coral polyps, the materials these reefs are built of are guaranteed to last just sixty years. Most are not large or heavy enough to withstand being tossed around by a major weather event, and there is very little scientific data on what happens when you actually put them in the ocean. In a maddening catch-22, 3D printed reefs lack the imprimatur of data from scientific testing, which means it’s hard to secure funding to put them in the ocean, where data could be collected. So far, the unit off Bahrain is the only 3D printed reef in any ocean in the world, though plans are underway to sink six 3D printed reefs—designed to help corals recuperate from damage—off the coast of Monaco later this year. (Lennon is an advisor to the project.) Meanwhile, coral around the world is struggling to survive in warmer, more acidic waters.
For millions of years, corals have lived in changeable environments, pummeled by storms and the vicissitudes of climate, and they have evolved to be inherently dynamic and resilient systems. “Resilience” is a word overused to the point of nonsense in recent years, but the concept is meaningful in the context of coral-reef ecology. After the first bleaching event in 1998, 16 percent of the world’s coral in fifty countries bleached. Forty percent of that coral died, but that means 60 percent of it lived. “They can bounce back from disruption. They can bounce back from mortality,” says Gabriel Grimsditch, the senior project officer at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, currently helping to develop coral-reef management plans.