How Do Corals Protect Coastlines?

Introducing a new paper review on the power of artificial reefs to protect coastlines.

Our next adventure will take us into a field near and dear to my heart: oceanography. One of the current hot topics in physical oceanography is the subject of artificial reefs. Coral reefs are more than diversity hotspots teeming with beautiful forms of life – they are energy absorbers, wave breakers, and solid bulwarks that protect coastlines and islands day by day, around the world.

Of course, corals are also in danger, with sensitivity to things like pollution, temperature changes, and especially, ocean acidification. So artificial reefs have been popular for some time, for restorative – and artistic – reasons.

Coral reefs are living bulwarks that break waves early, off and away from the coast. Scientists are studying not just the science of coastal protection (under both normal and storm wave activity), but also the economic impact of reefs. Coral reefs foster frugality and wise spending: they divert funds away from the renovation necessary after a storm hits an unprotected coast.

In the paper Coral reef structural complexity provides important coastal protection from waves under rising sea levels, scientists produce a model that predicts how various sea level and reef growth/erosion rates could impact shorelines currently protected by their native coral reefs. It discusses how not only is a reef needed for protection, but a living one is – the structural complexity of a rough, asymmetric coral greatly increases the protection it provides against incoming waves. And they use this research to encourage protection of the reefs we have, as well as good management in the future that may include fostering reef growth on coastlines.

Another cool thing about this paper? The experiment here is based on real data, but the numbers are crunched in a computational model. The authors didn’t run a physical experiment in the ocean, building reefs around the world and moving sea level up and down to test the impact they had on coastal cities. Instead, they used a programmed model and fiddled with the variables within a computer. They used math, physics, and computer programs to solve real-world problems.

And you thought your algebra class was useless.

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