It is also building a pilot project ultimately leading to a 72 km2 (28 mi2) engineered reef off Comporta, Portugal, which will cost approximately $226-556 million.
Each stackable underwater city contains a Bluboxx, a console fitted with sensors to measure the salinity, temperature and acidity of the sea, with the data then livestreamed to scientists and shared with governments.
If no action is taken to protect coral reefs, it is believed that 90% will be extinct by 2050, according to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Nestled on the ocean floor in Southeast Asia are five sensor-filled boxes that will reveal the future of coral reefs. For the past year, from their secret location, the Bluboxx project has been livestreaming data on the health of the coral reef to researchers in Southeast Asia.
While groundbreaking, these Bluboxxes are part of a grander plan: they mark the beginning of a network of engineered underwater cities that are designed to save coral. The first two cities will be launched in 2022, one in Sultan Iskandar Marine Park, Malaysia, which is home to dugongs and turtles, and the other along the Comporta coastline of Portugal.
The 72-square-kilometer (28-square-mile) Comporta reef is ultimately expected to cost 200-500 million euros ($226-556 million), and they aim to have started building the pilot project in time for the U.N. Ocean Conference that takes place in Lisbon in 2022. While the summit serves as a clear deadline, the Blue Oasis Technology team behind the project has another deadline that it’s working toward, and which it says is more concerning: 90% of corals could go extinct by 2050 if no action is taken to protect reefs, according to a report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Coral reefs support a quarter of all marine life species, as well as half a billion people across the globe.
This grand plan for underwater coral cities came from Dutch engineer and scuba diver Jeroen van de Waal.
“There are literally dozens of startups today that have beautiful ideas, but their solutions are not scalable,” Van de Waal, founder of Blue Oasis Technology, told Mongabay in an interview. “They are very small and won’t work in many oceans because the hydrodynamics in these oceans are too wild and too strong for these small reef modules to survive.”
Van de Waal, who is accustomed to building giant underwater structures for the oil and gas industry, said he knew he could create a structure that could hold its ground in some of the wildest oceans. The first engineered reef will be launched in the Atlantic Ocean. The next will be launched in the calmer turquoise-colored waters off Malaysia.
These dramatically different locations mean that Blue Oasis Technology is able to show how the engineered underwater city can be adapted to suit both large- and small-scale projects. In Comporta, each 55-metric-ton module will be lowered into the ocean using a crane vessel, while in Sultan Iskandar Marine Park, the team will take a more low-key approach and float smaller stackable modules to the location of the new reef.2
The eco building blocks can be used to mirror the original underwater landscape. If there was once a seawall or a low-level sprawling reef, the stackable modules can be used to emulate it and hopefully attract the same flora and fauna.
The scientists on the team have attempted to replicate 10,000-year-old coral reefs by creating a calcium-rich eco-friendly concrete from recycled industrial waste such as decontaminated sludge and slag. They also plan to use food waste such as rice husks in their mix.
Stacey Tighe, the marine science, strategy and policy adviser for Blue Oasis Technology, said a local approach to sourcing materials will be key.
“As we go into reef production at particular sites, we will reach out for the raw materials to the relevant industries nearby,” Tighe said. “This means that less waste needs to be exported or processed, which reduces cost and pollution, and the transport costs for the construction of the engineered reefs will be lower.”
Blue Oasis Technology will build this low-carbon backbone and then aims to partner with organizations such as the award-winning Bahamian company Coral Vita, which grows resilient corals and can transplant them onto these engineered reefs.
While modern technology is being adopted by Blue Oasis Technology and companies such as Living Walls, which is using a 3D printer to create coral reef tiles, there is evidence to show that artificial reefs have existed for hundreds of years. In the 17th century, Japanese fishermen used to build wooden structures to increase their fish stocks, and in the U.S. in the 1830s, fishermen submerged log huts to create artificial reefs off South Carolina. The most studied historical artificial reef is the ruins of an 18th-century jetty in St. Eustatius in the Caribbean.
However, researchers found that even this 200-year-old artificial reef did not match the complexity of life on a natural coral reef.
The choice of materials used have also not always been successful.
A well-intentioned artificial reef created from 700,000 tires off Florida in 1972 resulted in a $1.6 million cleanup operation 40 years later. The coral wouldn’t grow on the rubber, and the ties connecting the tires were corroded by the salt water, causing the tires to roll around and damage the surrounding natural coral reefs.
Selina Ward from the University of Queensland, Australia, who specializes in coral reef ecology, said the complexity of the surfaces on which coral larvae settle is an amazing science. She said they like to settle on algae, which they incorporate into their skeletons, use to protect themselves against a bleaching event, and take microscopic cells from for energy.
“We are only just beginning to understand the importance of this microbiome for the health and survival of coral,” Ward said.
She said Blue Oasis Technology’s choice of using a natural reef’s calcium carbonate structure is a step in the right direction, but a lot more needs to happen to make an artificial reef successful. “You can’t paint the algae on — it’s got to make it itself. The site for the artificial reef needs to have the right temperature, current and sediment levels and it is important there is plenty of fish in the area so they can trim the algae that are inevitably going to grow first on that concrete,” she said. “Algae and coral are both looking for life and space, so they compete. Without fish, you could have a frame full of algae.”