“No ocean; no life. No ocean; no us” is the stark warning from Dr Sylvia Earle, 2009 TED prize winner, legendary oceanographer in the trailer to her new documentary, Mission Blue. Earle has led more than 100 expeditions worldwide involving more than 7,000 hours underwater. After decades at the forefront of ocean exploration, Earle is a passionate advocate for the world’s oceans. Mission Blue is a rallying call to adapt our behaviour, and start to protect the oceans as we do land, with a goal of 20% protection by 2020.
A week after the release of Mission Blue on Netflix (on August 15th) a team of Southern Cross University biogeochemists published a research paper concluding that “the rate of acidification in coral reef ecosystems is more than three times faster than in the open ocean”. Ocean acidification, or the lowering of the ocean pH due to anthropogenic (caused by humans) inputs of carbon dioxide, is well documented. The change in chemistry significantly reduces the ability of corals, and other shell-forming organisms, to build their skeletons. We have seen a 40% loss of corals around the globe in the last 30 years. Coral reefs are incredibly diverse eco-systems, supporting many other species. and essential breeding grounds for viable fisheries.
For the roughly 500 million people worldwide who rely on coral reefs for food, tourism income and coastal protection, healthy coral reefs are a vital part of resource management. Diving is a passion for Nell Bennett, recent RCA graduate, and SustainRCAFinalist. While working as a conservation volunteer with blue ventures in Madagascar, she experienced at first hand the importance of community involvement in conservation initiatives. Bennett designed t-shirts and comic strips to inspire and share messages about sustainable fishing practices, and alternative sources of income from aquaculture (farming sea-cucumbers).
Mindful of this backdrop, Nell Bennett‘s final year project for her MA in Innovation Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art, Coral3, is a scheme to increase the pH of water passing through a coral reef using large alkaline structures placed upstream or within a reef. These sacrificial structures, made of waste calcium carbonate and an organic binder, slowly dissolve, increasing the pH of the water. The huge sculptural shapes could form a fantastical and unique underwater dive attraction for an eco-tourism project, bringing in revenue as well as restoration of a reef.
Designing the sculptures requires complex modelling of surface areas, densities, material properties, currents and water acidity to regulate the dissolution rate. For example, you could design a form with a constant surface area, as it dissolved, or explore different densities of calcium carbonate within the composite. Bennett talked with D-Shape, a pioneering robotic building system similar to a mega-scale 3D-printer. D-Shape can print any feature that can fit within a 6metre cube. They used 3D CAD software to design giant sculptural forms that would provide constant dissolution rates in water.
D-Shape’s technology works similarly to a large scape 3D printer. Working from the structure’s foundation binder is strained onto a layer of sand (in this instance calcium carbonate). The solidification process starts and a new layer is added, in 5-10mm layers with material that is not in contact with the binder buttressing the structure until it has solidified. Once the solidified, any surplus material is released, and hey presto, the structure or sculpture is revealed. My daughter’s glitter project ambitions could soon reach new dimensions!
As well as using binders, Bennett also explored the work of biomineralogist Damian Palin, a fellow RCA alumnus. While at the RCA, Palin developed a casting process using bacteria as a low-energy catalyst to create artefacts. More recently, Palin is developing a process that uses bacteria to biologically “mine” minerals from brine water that is residual to saltwater desalination.
Designing, constructing and delivering sculptures on a large scale would require infrastructure and funds from sponsoring partners. The Coral3 framework, developed with guidance from the Bertarelli Foundation and blue ventures, describes a social enterprise to provide the host community with sustainable livelihoods. The construction and delivery of sculptures on such a scale would require infrastructure and funds from sponsoring partners including local dive centres, resort hotels, a shipping company, and marine conservation charity. The more modest sculptures exhibited at Bennett’s degree show were made by hacking a 3D printer, their delicate, ethereal forms reminiscent of the corals themselves. These or even more simple, economical brick forms that could be replaced easily at regularly intervals may form the basis of a pilot project.
Bennett’s work may be included in a major exhibition at the Natural History Museum, Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea, opening in March 2015. The exhibition promises stunning seascapes drawn from the Catlin Seaview Survey, which is sponsored by the exhibition partners, the Catlin Group, a global specialty property insurer and reinsurer. The Catlin Seaview Survey is creating a baseline record of the world’s coral reefs, in high-resolution 360-degree panoramic vision. The project started in September 2012, surveying the Great Barrier Reef. In total 150km of 32 reefs along the entire length of the Great Barrier Reef and out into the Coral Sea were surveyed. 105,000, GPS located, panoramic images are being analysed by marine scientists around the world, and can be viewed on the free, publicly accessible online database, the Catlin Global Reef Record. Everyone from reef managers to international decision makers will be able to see the current state of reef ecosystems, and monitor changes over time at the local, regional or global level. It gives an unprecedented and common view of the health of these fragile ecosystems, a vital aid to management.
The sheer wonder I felt the first time I saw a healthy reef in the Red Sea was captivating. The beautiful technicolor images are fresh in my mind more than twenty years later, I only hope the reef is still as brilliantly pristine today. Soon, I will be able to check, revisiting the reef, virtually this time, thanks to the Catlin Seaview Survey! A joy of digital and location-based technology that reveals the beauty of our oceans, and provides essential data to conserve and protect their vital eco-systems.
Coral3 has been selected as a SustainRCA Show and Award 2014 finalist, and will be on display at the RCA from 18th September – 3rd October 2014.
Image credits: Catlin Seaview Survey; Mission Blue; Nell Bennett/Sustain