Reefense project aims to meld biology and engineering in novel structures for coastal protection

UCSC scientists are part of a DARPA-funded team to develop innovative solutions for coral reef restoration in Florida and the Caribbean to protect coastal infrastructure

coral reef
Healthy coral reefs absorb 97 percent of a wave’s energy, which buffers shorelines from currents, waves, and storms, helping to prevent loss of life and property damage. (Image: Paul Selvaggio, SECORE International)

UC Santa Cruz scientists will play a key role in a coral reef restoration project focused on protecting vulnerable coastal regions in Florida and the Caribbean. The collaborative effort is led by the University of Miami (UM) and funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as part of its nationwide Reefense research program.

The Reefense program aims to develop self-healing, hybrid biological and engineered reef-mimicking structures for coastal protection. DARPA launched the program in response to the challenges of coastal flooding, erosion, and storm damage that increasingly threaten civilian and Department of Defense (DoD) infrastructure and personnel.

The UM-led project, called X-REEFS (neXt generation Reef Engineering to Enhance Future Structures), has received an initial $7.5 million grant, with options of up to $20.9 million. UCSC’s participation is led by Michael Beck, a research professor in the Institute of Marine Sciences at UC Santa Cruz who holds the AXA Chair in Coastal Resilience, and IMS associate research professor Borja Reguero. Both are adjunct professors in UCSC’s Coastal Science and Policy Program.

“We will be designing a reef restoration solution that aims to protect coastlines with an engineered structure, which will also grow corals to be resilient in the face of climate change and other stressors,” said Beck, who is a core member of the project’s leadership team.

Beck’s team at UC Santa Cruz has been at the forefront of making the case for the value of nature-based solutions in coastal protection and adaptation to climate change. They have worked with federal agencies and the insurance industry to demonstrate the value of coastal wetlands, coral reefs, and mangroves for coastal defense. Their work includes extensive modeling of the hydrodynamics and wave attenuation benefits of coral reefs and other coastal habitats. Their initial task in the X-REEFS project will be to help design, model, and assess the benefits from innovative restoration solutions with the team at UM’s world-leading facility for studying the interactions of wind, waves, storms, and shorelines.

“We will be working with UM and Penn State University on innovative reef restoration solutions and making sure they can deliver the high-performance benefits specified by DARPA for the protection of DoD facilities,” said Beck.

Principal investigator Andrew Baker, director of the Coral Reef Futures Lab at UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, said the team’s mission is to develop hybrid reefs that combine the wave-protection benefits of artificial structures with the ecological benefits of coral reefs.

“We will be working on next generation structural designs and concrete materials, and integrating them with novel ecological engineering approaches to help foster the growth of corals on these structures,” he said. “At the same time, we will also be testing new adaptive biology approaches to produce corals that are faster-growing and more resilient to a warming climate.”

The overall goal is to develop, test, and deploy coral-reef-mimicking structures that provide immediate protection from waves and which are also self-building, self-repairing, and able to keep pace with sea level rise over time.

According to Beck, coral reef restoration lags behind other areas of coastal ecosystem restoration. “We know that coral reefs are protecting coastlines, but we just don’t know yet how to design reefs that will both restore coral and deliver coastal protection,” he said. “A successful, innovative demonstration project that could be used widely would be an incredible advance and could be used across the Caribbean and globally.”

In addition to UM and UCSC, the X-REEFS team also includes experts at the conservation organization SECORE International, Pennsylvania State University, Johns Hopkins University, Texas A&M University, the Florida Aquarium, Florida International University, University of Florida, and the Smithsonian Marine Station.

“Our Reefense team builds upon years of successful collaboration, and highlights our optimism in working towards a more resilient future, both for coral reefs and the coastal communities which depend on them,” said Baker.