When the Biden administration entered the White House, they identified climate change as a significant security threat. As a result, the US military set in motion a full-scale response to address this. One of their programs aimed to resolve threats brought by the rising sea level and coastal flooding was a program by DARPA called “Reefense.”

Coral Reefs, Rain Forest of the Sea

As reported by IPCC since the 1800s, “emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are responsible for approximately 1.1°C of warming since 1850-1900 and finds that averaged over the next 20 years, global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5°C of warming.” 

Rising sea levels and coastal flooding have increased drastically in the last 50 years. One natural barrier we have against these is the coral reefs. According to NOAA, “coral reef structure buffers shorelines against waves, storms, and floods, helping to prevent loss of life, property damage, and erosion. When reefs are damaged or destroyed, the absence of this natural barrier can increase the damage to coastal communities from normal wave action and violent storms.

It is estimated that 25% of all marine species call coral reefs their homes. Thus they have been called “the rain forests of the sea.” 

The absence of coral reefs does not only impact the people living on the shorelines or near the coasts. Rising seas, severe storms, and persistent flooding also affect military bases and activities. In 2015, the Department of Defense conducted a global screening level assessment to pinpoint climate-related security risks. Results show that non-storm-surge-related flooding was the second-highest climate-related security risk, while wildfire and flooding due to storm surge affected about 6% of the sites. 

Bombed Reef in the Bird’s Head Seascape.

Beginning in 2010, the DoD started its Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan that promised to reduce the use of petroleum in vehicle fleets by 30% by 2020. They showed massive efforts over the next ten years. They eliminated the use of vehicles powered by petroleum by 44% by using hybrids and electric cars. The talks and efforts disappeared with Trump’s administration. However, it was revived when Biden entered the office and identified it as a “major security threat.”

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the agency responsible for developing emerging technologies to be possibly used for military purposes, started a program called Reefense. It was a program t aimed to protect the 1,700 facilities managed by the department threatened by coastal flooding and the sea level rise. DARPA explained:

Reefense seeks to develop self-healing, hybrid biological, and engineered reef-mimicking structures to mitigate the coastal flooding, erosion, and storm damage that increasingly threaten civilian and DoD infrastructure and personnel. Under Reefense, custom wave-attenuating base structures will promote calcareous reef organism (coral or oyster) settlement and growth, which will enable the system to self-heal and keep pace with sea level rise over time.

They also aimed to attract non-reef building organisms to help maintain a healthy system. New testing on an “adaptive biology” is ongoing to ensure that the corals and oysters will be resilient against temperature changes, diseases, and environmental changes.

The Reefense structures’ goal is to speed up the natural biological processes that usually take decades and shorten them into months or years.

X-REEFS Gets Government Funding

The University of Miami, in collaboration with UC Santa Cruz scientists, leads the Reefense research program. Now called X-REEFS (neXt generation Reef Engineering to Enhance Future Structures), the government has an approved $7.5 million grant and could go up to $20.9 million.

Michael Beck, a research professor in the Institute of Marine Science at UC Santa Cruz, and Borja Reguero, an IMS associate research professor, led the university’s participation. “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,” Beck said.

“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. A successful, innovative demonstration project that could be used widely would be an incredible advance and could be used across the Caribbean and globally.” He explained further.

The X-REEFS program is a collaboration not only between UC Santa Cruz and the University of Miami but also with the help of Pennsylvania State University, Johns Hopkins University, Texas A&M University, Florida International University, University of Florida, and organizations like SECORE International, the Florida Aquarium, and the Smithsonian Marine Station.