Sunday, August 12, 2012

Electrifying Coral Growth: promising artificial reef project in Florida

Electricity - long before we learned that all animated objects generate some level of electrical current or field, it was viewed as a source of life from the gods or god.  Bolts of lightning brought Mary W. Shelley's monster to life in Frankenstein, and a good jolt or two has saved more than one individual thanks to the emergency defibrillator.

But those are big, powerful doses.  At very low levels, electricity can also be a source of life.  An example of which would be the use of very low-level voltages to stimulate coral growth.  This has been used with artificial reefs in several parts of the world, and it is now being tried in Florida's Lauderdale-By-The-Sea.  Not far off the town's coastline are reefs easily accessible to divers, in 15 feet of water, 250 yards off shore.  Six years ago, the town leaders, realizing that an expansion of their reef system would be good for conservation and tourism by both establishing new attractions for divers and providing some relief from "diver pressure" on existing natural reefs, commissioned the non-profit Global Coral Reef Alliance to install a steel rod framework that is electrified at very low levels through solar panels.  

The low levels of electricity stimulates calcium carbonate - the foundation of all coral reefs - to bond onto the steel rods (the framework resembles an aircraft hanger in shape).  The stimulation forms a substrate that is conducive for a wide variety of sedentary marine creatures, form corals to oysters.  It also provides a platform for the attachment of living coral that has either off from natural reefs or has been nurtured in a laboratory or aquarium setting.

Electrical stimulation of calcium is also being used for humans.  Low-level stimulation has been shown to accelerate bone growth and successfully used with patients following orthopedic surgery.  In this oceanic application, pioneered by Global Coral Reef Alliance's Thomas Goreau and patented under the name Biorock, it works in a very similar fashion and, while it does have some detractors who question it's effectiveness, for Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, it appears to be working.

“It’s definitely attracting fish,” said Stephen Attis, president of Vone Research which did the actual installation. “The structures are growing calcium carbonate. The amount of oysters on it and how fast they’re growing is amazing. It’s very promising.”

Promising, yes.  But no one is expecting a full-fledged coral reef overnight.  A fully formed reef will still take many years, if not decades, to be realized.  But given the precarious state of the world's coral reefs due to climate change, pollution, and other man-made activities, any effort that provides coral reefs with some sort of assistance while we address the need for a defense against those threats that jeopardize coral's survival - well, that's a welcome little jolt.

“This is a really neat project and I believe it’s going to work,” Attis said. “We’re already seeing growth, and once we transplant corals, it’s really going to change. It should be exciting.”

Source: Sun-Sentinel

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