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Engineering LibreTexts How Technology is Saving the World’s Coral Reefs

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    The decline in coral reefs causes major problems. Coral reefs make up only 0.2% of our ocean however they are home to over 25% of marine fish species and other organisms. They play many roles including protection of shorelines from major storms. The loss of coral reefs can disrupt many other ecosystems in and around the ocean.

    Although the destruction of coral reefs have been caused by human activity, it is also humans that are saving these systems and finding solutions using technological advancements. Scientists from all over are exploring different technologies aimed at protecting coral reef ecosystems.



    Underwater robots may be a key in helping us understand coral reef systems. Underwater robots were recently developed by researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. This new tool can offer a new way to study ocean currents as well as the creatures that are in the ocean. Right now the goal of these underwater robots is to use them to help answer questions about the most abundant form of life in the ocean: plankton.

    The researchers at Scripps have designed and built these underwater explorers to study small scale environmental processes that are taking place in the ocean. These robots include probes that are equipped with temperature and other sensors to measure ocean conditions by swimming up and down or by maintaining a constant depth. These small robots could potentially be deployed in the hundreds to thousands to capture a multi-dimensional view of the interactions between the physical ocean and marine life.

    During a study using these robots, scientists wanted to test theories behind how plankton form dense patches under the ocean surface, which then later leads them to rise to the surface as red tides. These robots were the perfect way to mimic the underwater swimming behavior of plankton and examine the organisms’ movements with the ocean currents.

    This was the first time that a mechanism like this has ever been tested underwater. The biggest advancement is that these small robots are made inexpensively and are able to be tracked continuously underwater. What this means is that these robots could potentially be used as a small army and be deployed in a swarm. This swarm-sensing approach opens up a new world of ocean exploration. These small, low cost robots with cameras would allow for the photographic mapping of things such as corals. This technique could be huge in identifying the problem as well as seeing the effects of coral bleaching in almost real time.

    You can check out the video and experiment that went along with this study HERE


    To help preserve and restore coral, scientists are using an innovative technology called biorock. Biorock is a piece of technology that has a low-voltage direct current which is run through steel. This electricity can then interact with minerals in the seawater and cause solid limestone to grow on the structure. It uses the same principles as electrolysis, where the electric current causes a chemical reaction to occur that wouldn’t normally happen. Coral fragments from other reefs can than be translocated to the biorock structure where they can grow due to the natural mineral crystals that were formed.

    This type of technology is being used as conservation measures for coral reefs. This is because this type of technology can speed up the normal processes of coral growth. When a diver sees an injured coral they can move them to these structures so that they can continue to grow and heal. The coral then have 50% greater chance of survival then they had before. Biorocks have also helped fish and lobster populations, especially juveniles who shelter in the structures.

    Biorock Stimulation” by Ultra Kulture


    Coral reef mapping and monitoring have helped scientists gather data on these habitats. With this technique scientists can collection biological, socioeconomic and climatic data needed to evaluate the conditions of the coral reefs and the surrounding area.

    Monitoring operations include the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program (NCRMP), a new integrated and monitoring effort that will provide a precise picture of the U.S. coral reefs condition. To learn more about the NCRMP click here.

    Mapping underwater coral reefs with 3D mapping allows volunteers and researchers to spend more time studying fish and invertebrates in water, while still getting the data needed from the reef. Cameras are used to take a multitude of underwater images and specialized software is used to analyze those images. More precise numeric data can be obtained with this technology. Before the use of technology such values could only be estimated by expert divers. Another advantage of this technology is its non-invasiveness, allowing the study of an environment in the office with less stressful field operations and coral extractions. The ease of repetitive surveys will make an amazing database for following coral reef changes over time, with the possibility to quantify all changes in near-real-time.


    3D Printing Could Potentially Save our Coral Reefs: Check out this video showing the work being done to create artificial reefs

    Thumbnail for the embedded element "3D-Printing Creates Artificial Coral Reefs"

    A YouTube element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

    3D-Printing Creates Artificial Coral Reefs” by Youtube under CC by 2.0

    As coral reefs are declining at fast rates, scientists are struggling to find effective and innovative ways to save them. One of the new ways they are doing this is by 3D printing. 3D printing has become a common way to construct many things such as human organs. 3D printing of portions of reefs can replace lost pieces of coral. These “fake” reefs are thought to be less vulnerable to climate change and more resilient to changing environmental conditions. Scientists are using 3D printing technology that helps them to create fake reefs to mimic the texture and structure of the natural reefs in an effort for restoration.

    These experimental 3D printed reefs have already been implemented in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Persian Gulf, and Australia. If they succeed, it will allow for new habitat for fish, but also baby coral polyps to attach themselves and multiply to grow into new reefs.


    3D Printed Coral Reefs” by Popularscience

    Artificial reefs have also been used to provide habitat and act as an ecosystem by mimicking a coral reef. They have been made of sunken shipwrecks, plastic, concrete blocks, old tires, and old cars—all heaped onto the ocean floor in hopes that fish and other marine life will come to call them home. However, many of these reefs fail because they do not fit in. A 3D printed reef is a better option since it can recreate the small spaces needed to protect the species that live in the community, it can act as a passageway and door. It can also provide angles that cast light or shades in a certain directions enabling fish to avoid predation. Since this technology is so new there are still so many questions behind it like how well will they actually work? How sustainable are these structures? Can they withstand harsh storms?

    As the years go on scientists will be able to determine the effectiveness of these structures. This technology is a step in the right direction to trying to find alternative ways to save coral reefs.


    The information in this chapter in thanks to content contributions from Haley Zanga. How Technology is Saving the World’s Coral Reefs is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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