Preserving reef ecology by putting plastic in the ocean
With its calcium carbonate structure, reef-forming coralline algae has an ecological function very similar to that of coral. And, as is the case with coral reefs in general, the algae is currently at risk due to global warming and ocean acidification. Led by Dr. Federica Ragazzola, scientists from Britain's University of Portsmouth are doing something about it – they're creating synthetic reefs in the Mediterranean Sea, made from artificial coralline algae.
The fake algae is composed of a non-toxic elastomer, and fronds of it are being fastened to rocks using epoxy resin. Each mini reef measures 10 cm in diameter (3.9 inches), and consists of a cluster of 20 fronds. The first of the reefs have already been installed near existing natural coralline algae reefs in Italy, with plans for a total of 90 to be set up over the next year.
One of the immediate hopes is that organisms which ordinarily make their home in and around the algae will colonize its plastic replacement – this could prove essential to maintaining the existing ecosystem if the natural algae completely dies out, as the organisms that it currently hosts may die with it.
That said, the scientists are also interested in seeing if the plastic algae will serve as a sort of scaffold, upon which its natural counterpart will grow. If that proves to be the case, then it's possible that future synthetic reefs could be made using biodegradable plastic fronds, which would slowly disappear as they were replaced by real algae.
"Our research will allow us to clarify the function of the coralline algae reef as a buffer for diversity, abundance, reproductive, ecological and structural characteristics of the associated fauna," says Dr. Chiara Lombardi, of project partner the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development. "As a consequence, our results will be important for the planning of future protection and management strategies involving coralline algae bioconstructions."
Also taking part in the project are Italy's National Research Council, and international collaboration MedClimaLizers.
Source: University of Portsmouth