It started in Caribbean Sea. Jaime Ascencio, then a business development engineer working across Latin America, was eager to find sustainable ways to combat the coastal erosion that was eating away at the region’s precious beaches and threatening the tourism dollars brought in by its resort towns. “If there is no sand, there are no guests,” he says. But Ascensio, who knew that artificial reefs could act as natural breakwaters, could only find solutions that were neither durable nor stable enough to withstand the force of the waves. So he got a master’s degree in coastal engineering from the famous Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and developed one himself.
After more than five years of research and development, the fruit of his labor has just been immersed in the Meuse, just outside Rotterdam, the Netherlands: 17 blocks, weighing six tonnes each and made of low-grade concrete carbon, are now stacked on the river bottom. The resulting structure – 82 feet long and nearly 10 feet high – is Rotterdam’s first living breakwater, an artificial reef that will restore marine biodiversity and also serve as a more durable wave barrier against turbulence caused by the tens thousands of ships that sail in and out of Europe’s largest port each year.
Officially called Reef Enhancing Breakwater, the underwater structure is the first project of Refied, a startup that Ascensio co-founded with Leon Haines, a marine biologist who spent five years working on coral reef restoration projects in Thailand, the Maldives, and Indonesia. Next on Reefy’s list are similar projects in Mexico and the southeast coast of the United States (which is already a real playground for artificial reefs).
In many ways, the principle behind the start-up – that regenerating the ocean can protect the coastline – already exists in nature. Around the world, coral reefs act as a natural buffer, protecting coastal regions from waves, storms and tsunamis. According to a group of researchers who have analyzed corals around the world, coral reefs can dissipate a staggering 97% wave energy before it hits the shore. Corals also support more species per unit area than any other marine environment while covering only 0.01% of the ocean floor.
Except that coral reefs are dying from the relentless stress caused by climate change. This much-documented demise has given rise to myriad artificial reef solutions over the years, some unintended, some highly engineered. These run the gamut from sunken ships to deliberately submerged old US Army tanks, New York subway cars, strange underwater sculpture parksAnd domed coral skeletons pre-seeded with coral fragments by robotic arms.