Artificial Reefs - Protecting Marine Ecosystems and Coastal Communities




Coral reefs not only provide a safe shelter for marine life, but also act as a natural barrier against stormy seas. However, as climate change continues to cause coral bleaching and degradation worldwide, [1],[2]coastal communities are becoming more susceptible to frequent flooding and erosion from extreme weather events. In recent years, there has been growing interest in the use of artificial reefs to safeguard marine ecosystems and minimise the impact of storms.

Coral bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia (Image source: CNN)

 

Artificial reefs are manmade structures designed to mimic natural reef functions. They provide shelter, food sources, and breeding grounds for a wide range of marine organisms.[3] Artificial reefs can be strategically deployed to support damaged coral reefs, allowing marine life to find refuge and flourish and helping to restore degraded habitats.[4]

Artificial reefs being placed in the waters off Pensacola (Image source: BBC World)

 

In addition to their ecological benefits, artificial reefs have the potential to reduce the impact of storms on coastal areas. Coastal communities are increasingly vulnerable to severe storms and rising sea levels under climate change.[5] Traditional coastal defenses like seawalls are failing to adequately prevent erosion and damage from more powerful waves. Artificial reefs can serve as submerged breakwaters, effectively dissipating wave energy and reducing the force of incoming waves before they reach the shoreline.

Tseung Kwan O Waterfront Park destroyed after Typhoon Mangkhut (Image source: Wikipedia)

In a recent advancement, a team of MIT researchers has designed an innovative "architected" reef—a sustainable offshore structure engineered to mimic the wave buffering effects of a natural reef while also providing safe havens for fish and other marine life. The reef design revolves around a cylindrical structure surrounded by four slat-like rudders. This structure breaks incoming waves into turbulent jets, effectively dispersing a significant portion of the energy and protecting coastal infrastructure.[6]

Wave-breaking performance of two artificial reef structures in testing (Image source: MIT news)

 

While the potential benefits of artificial reefs are significant, their design and implementation must consider environmental impacts. Careful selection of materials and proper placement of artificial reefs are vital to minimise negative effects on existing ecosystems.[7],[8]Thorough environmental impact assessments should be conducted to ensure that the deployment of artificial reefs does not harm natural habitats or endangered species. In addition, local communities, fishermen, and environmental organizations should be consulted to ensure that the project aligns with the needs and aspirations of the community.

 

With proper management, artificial reefs can preserve marine ecosystems and protect coastal communities in the face of climate change and increasing storm intensity.


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