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New technologies could be key to saving coral reefs — one method grows 'reef-ready' coral in 6 to 9 months

Coral reefs, often called the "rainforests of the sea," are biodiversity hotspots.

Coral reefs, often called the "rainforests of the sea," are biodiversity hotspots.

Photo Credit: YouTube

Robots and mass-production techniques are joining forces to restore devastated coral reefs faster than ever before.

This game-changing solution can't come soon enough. Atmospheric pollution and rising global temperatures are slated to wipe out 99% of coral by the 2030s if drastic measures aren't taken, reported the World Economic Forum.

Up until now, coral restoration has been a slow, laborious process. But Taryn Foster, a coral scientist in Western Australia, is supercharging reef recovery by automating key steps.

Her company, Coral Maker, manufactures small coral skeletons, which are then seeded with live coral in an assembly line powered by robots and artificial intelligence.

"I was studying these big reefs and saw how quickly a bleaching event devastates a reef system. In the space of a few weeks during one of the bleaching events, we saw around 90% coral mortality. And I was reconsidering whether or not I wanted to continue to write scientific research papers, or whether I wanted to get more involved in practical, more solutions-based work," Foster told the BBC. 

Thankfully, she chose the latter. Her goal? To plant about 250 acres of reef per year compared to just about 2.5 acres using traditional methods, per the BBC.

By scaling up restoration, there's renewed hope that threatened reefs and the marine life they support can bounce back before it's too late.

Coral reefs, often called the "rainforests of the sea," are biodiversity hotspots, home to a quarter of all named marine species, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They also directly benefit an estimated 1 billion people, per the UN.

But corals are ultra-sensitive to temperature changes. As oceans absorb 90% of the heat fueled by human-caused atmospheric pollution (per the UN), entire reefs suffer catastrophic bleaching.

In response, innovative projects are cropping up worldwide to give coral a fighting chance. In Florida, the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) grows coral on synthetic "trees" to boost growth rates before transplanting them. According to Phanor Montoya-Maya, CRF's restoration program manager, the suspended corals are "reef-ready" in six to nine months, as reported by the BBC. 

Some conservationists argue we should focus on protecting coral's impressive ability to recover by addressing root causes like rising global temperatures, overfishing, and pollution caused by a variety of factors, including plastic waste and the burning of dirty energy.

"Reef restoration efforts can be effective in certain scenarios, but all of these different approaches have yet to be proven at scale," Erika Woolsey, chief scientist at The Hydrous, told the news outlet. "However, we know that to save coral reefs, we really have to combat climate change, remove local stressors, like overfishing, and prevent overgrowth of macroalgae. Those are the proven solutions."

Still, as a stopgap, robots could also help move vulnerable corals to cooler waters through "assisted migration," per the BBC. Although controversial, proponents say we have to consider bold solutions in an era of rapid change.

The timeline for deploying mass-manufactured coral skeletons is still uncertain, but experts agree that scaling up restoration, while also transitioning to cleaner energy, is key to building heat resilience. These dual strategies could help turn the tide for coral reefs and the coastal communities that depend on them.

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