Scientists design liquid barrier to protect coral reefs from UV damage

As the world’s temperatures rise, a threat to marine life is mounting in the form of sun bleaching. These researchers may have the solution.

A group of scientists from Australia are testing an innovative material designed to shield the world’s shallow seas from the harmful effects of sunlight. As our planet steadily heats up and the atmospheres grow thinner, the sun’s ultraviolet rays radiate ever more intensely and pose a long-term danger to all life, including the delicate coral reef cultures hidden in the Earth’s oceans. Some 50 000 times thinner than one human hair, this liquid substance may help protect underwater reefs from harsh sun bleaching.

Head researcher Andrew Negri from the Australian Institute of Marine Science describes the material as a kind of “liquid umbrella” – a white, mostly invisible substance that can be sprayed onto the surface waters above coral outcrops. The liquid reflects sunlight back upwards and scatters light that manages to filter down.

This protective layer is refined and delicate in itself, and scientists have yet to make it resilient enough for the open ocean as it is not yet impervious to the turbulence of rough waters. Trials under real-world marine conditions will begin soon to develop the spray further and make it more effective in the swell of the oceans.

“In the laboratory, it actually stays on the surface for several weeks, but in the ocean, it could be broken up by wave action and moved around by the currents,” explained Negri to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Given the mission of this project, it was imperative for the scientists that the substance would be ecological and biodegradable, posing no harmful effects of its own. The spray is distilled from calcium carbonate, the same chemical ingredient coral polyps naturally use to make their hard structures. After a certain amount of time, the liquid barrier does break down and is absorbed in the seawater osmosis.

This comes at a time when a number of design projects have emerged around the globe that are geared towards the restoration of underwater dwellings. We previously featured the 3D-printed synthetic coral scaffolding design by the Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center, as well as the award-winning temporary underwater habitat designed to rehabilitate marine wildlife affected by oil spills by Industrial Design graduate Cameron Holder.

Researchers are focusing on a portion of the Great Barrier Reef as a case study for this design (a region off the coast of Australia that is particularly rich in coral reef cultures), that has sustained significant bleaching damage in recent years.

“It’s important to note that this is not intended to be a solution that can currently be applied over the whole Great Barrier Reef, which spans over 348,000 square kilometres,” notes Anna Marsden, Director of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. “That would never be practical, but it could be deployed on a smaller, local level to protect high value or high-risk areas of reef.”

For more information on the effects of ocean bleaching and the importance of design against the destruction of marine habitats in the broader sense, view the video below published by Life Noggin.

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