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How Coastal Development Impacts Ecosystems

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

What are coastal developments? And how do they damage coral reefs? Learn what's happening to the rainforests of the sea, and what scientists are doing to help. Take a quiz and see how much your knowledge has developed.

What are Coastal Developments?

Tourism is big business, and that's not too surprising. Pristine sandy beaches, stunning resorts, and a wealth of activities at your fingertips. It's all very appealing. When demand is high enough, people start to build. They clear space for larger beaches, build hotels, resorts, airports, marinas, and golf courses. Collectively, these are called coastal developments.

But the demand for tourist activities can take its toll on the natural landscape. Natural ecosystems that may have been untouched for many years suddenly become a hotbed of activity, and not all animals and plants can adapt fast enough to deal with it. Today we're going to talk about some of the issues caused by these coastal developments, and how scientists are trying to combat it.

Coastal developments greatly impact ecosystems
Coastal Developments

Coral Reefs and Ecosystem Damage

By far the biggest and most documented issue with coastal developments is the damage to coral reefs. Coral reefs are ridges of rock in the sea created by growing coral. Corals are invertebrates that give out calcium carbonate as a waste product, and it's that calcium carbonate that forms the skeleton for the reef. They've been described as rainforests of the sea because, like rainforests, they contain unmatched amounts of biodiversity. The variations and amounts of life found in coral reefs are staggering. But unfortunately they are under serious threat.

Coral reefs are under threat from many human-caused activities, including climate change and the acidification of the oceans. But their demise is being worsened and accelerated by coastal developments. Humans have removed mangrove forests and seagrass to create more beaches, built piers and other structures over the reefs, and destroyed nesting sites for turtles.

But it isn't just the building of things that is a problem - it's the tourists themselves. Tourists snorkel, dive, use boats, and fish. People touch, stand on and directly damage the reefs. They're often broken, or sediment is stirred up in ways that make it hard for animals to remain. Sometimes modifications to islands can change the saltiness of the water, or bring new sediments to the area, and this also upsets the balance by blocking out sunlight, which is vital to the development of coral reefs. As we speak, coral reefs are dying all over the world.

Coral reefs, which contain unmatched amounts of biodiversity, are under threat from tourism and other human activities
Coral Reef

Turning the Tide

That's all pretty terrible, and what are we doing about it? Taking a few less vacations to sensitive areas would be a good step forward, but for the moment, tourism doesn't seem likely to die down. However, scientists have found ways to try to reduce the damage.

They've tried educating tourists: places like Hanauma Bay in Hawaii require tourists to watch an educational video before they enter. Scientists also watch sea temperatures carefully and continually monitor some of the most important reefs for algae blooms that could push out other species and reduce diversity.

But one pretty exciting approach is to simply create new, artificial coral reefs. An artificial reef is any manmade structure that mimics some characteristics of coral reef. Most artificial reefs grow on top of shipwrecks.

An artificial reef
An Artificial Reef

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