Written by Sofia Perez
Edited by Tim Bateman
All around the world, coral reef bleaching is posing a huge threat to the future of marine biodiversity. It affects carbon sequestration, carbon dioxide levels, and the livelihood of coastal communities and marine species. Our economies rely on reefs, as do our supply chains, protein sources, and coastal protection from adverse weather. For decades, scientists have been sounding the alarm bells to mitigate climate change. Coral reef ecosystems experience high levels of stress due to changing water temperatures, ocean acidification, pollution, invasive species, changing weather patterns, physical impacts from ship groundings and storms, etc. Due to these various stressors, the world has also lost 30-50% of its reef cover already. Yet reefs currently contribute $10 trillion a year globally, and hundreds of millions of people rely on them for food, livelihoods, cultural practices, and business.
So far there have been many efforts to save reefs, all of which are laudable. To name a few, various groups have tried using acoustics to encourage fish and other organisms to return to abandoned reefs. Another example has been to build artificial reefs, or coral gardens. Yet to address the current situation, we need to focus on what comes next. Our continued response to these challenges relies on either adaptation or mitigation strategies, which each take a different approach to dealing with the problem. Adaptation focuses on helping reefs adapt to a changing climate, whereas mitigation focuses on preventing these adverse conditions to begin with. Both are crucial, but as I continue I will focus on strategies for adaptation. So…what can we do?
Turns out, one of the answers to this obstacle is actually quite small. To be precise, it is between 1-100 billionth of a meter small- tinier than even what can be observed with a microscope. As a comparison, that is smaller than the wavelength of visible light and a hundred-thousandth the width of a human hair. So what is this tiny-but-big solution? Nanotechnology, the science, engineering, and technology conducted at a scale of 1-100 nanometers.
That said, let’s move on to what nanotechnology has the potential to accomplish. Firstly, there is an opportunity to improve environmental remediation, which is the process of removing contaminants from the environment. Nanoparticles can be released into a habitat to detect and absorb harmful pollutants released due to anthropogenic activities. This includes heavy metals, dyes, chlorinated organic compounds, organophosphorus compounds, volatile organic compounds, halogenated herbicides, fertilizers, oil spills, toxic gasses, industrial effluents, sewage, and organic compounds. It goes without saying that this could be applied to a litany of habitats, but for now let’s focus on reefs.
Harping back to the long and disheartening list of difficulties they face, let’s consider eutrophication, which is essentially nutrient enrichment. This occurs because sewage and fertilizers run into the oceans, inadvertently fertilizing harmful algae. Eventually this algae outcompetes the coral and the reef becomes a ghost town. Nanotechnology could help out with situations like this because of the enhanced reactivity nanomaterials possess. This quality is ascribed to their overall larger surface area to volume ratio, the greater density of the reactive sites on their surface, and the higher intrinsic reactivity of these sites. All of these qualities combine to make a material that is more effective at removing toxic chemicals. Perhaps one day nanobots could be used to ensure reefs remain pristine, even when nutrient discharge is heavy.
Nonetheless, there are potential risk factors that ought to be considered, such as the limited understanding of quantum mechanics and nanoscience, and the additional regulation that is needed when it comes to the application of nanoparticles. This would prevent the materials used for environmental remediation from being pollutants themselves. This is a danger because there are still many research gaps to be filled in understanding quantum mechanics before this technology is truly as effective as it could be. There are also various considerations to be taken into account to prevent further environmental degradation. Even though nanotechnology is on the scale of nanometers, these impacts cannot be ignored. So before implementing this technology to the fullest extent, it is necessary to reach a more complete understanding of the impacts it would have on the surrounding environment. This includes challenges such as biodegradability, recyclability, non-toxicity, etc.
All in all, there is plenty of potential for nanotechnology in the world of conservation and marine science. In fact, some of this technology is already being put into practice to rebuild habitats via Intellireefs. With more research and understanding, maybe one day these nano-sized solutions will solve some of the biggest problems reefs face.
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