University of Miami Rosenstiel School selected for National ‘Reefense’ initiative focusing on Florida and the Caribbean

An initial $7.5M grant funds new Miami ‘X-REEFS’ team to develop innovative hybrid reef structures

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. Coastlines protected by coral reefs are also more stable in terms of erosion than those without. Source: NOAA

Image: Paul Selvaggio, SECORE International

MIAMI, Fl. -- Recognizing the value of coral reefs in reducing erosion, flooding, and storm damage, the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has selected the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science as a top recipient of funding for its nationwide Reefense research program. Through this program, a team of University faculty will help address security threats to U.S. military and civilian infrastructure that lie along the coastline.

Through the initial $7.5M grant, with options of up to $20.9M, Rosenstiel School researchers will lead the development of innovative hybrid biological and engineered reef structures designed to accelerate the protection of vulnerable coastal regions in Florida and the Caribbean.

Andrew C. Baker, professor in the Department of Marine Biology and Ecology and director of the Coral Reef Futures Lab at the Rosenstiel School, will serve as principal investigator for the DARPA project and lead a collaborative research team that includes partners at major academic institutions from across the nation. 

“Our mission is to develop hybrid reefs that combine the wave-protection benefits of artificial structures with the ecological benefits of coral reefs,” said Baker. “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. 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 resilient to climate change.

The new Miami-based project, called X-REEFS (neXt generation Reef Engineering to Enhance Future Structures) was incubated through the University’s Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge (U-LINK), a program which encourages the formation of interdisciplinary teams to address pressing societal issues. In this case, the challenge was how to protect the highly urbanized, low-lying sections of South Florida threatened by storm surge and coastal inundation. 

“Through the U-LINK program, and in partnership with the City of Miami Beach, we were able to begin developing a hybrid test bed structure that includes interventions to boost corals’ adaptive capacity,” Baker said.

“Our scientists are at the forefront of vital projects to sustain the viability of coral reefs which are increasingly endangered by climate change,” said Roni Avissar, dean of the Rosenstiel School. “In addition, we are world leaders in hurricane research and the impacts of storms on our coastlines. This is a tremendous opportunity to bring together some of our greatest research strengths.”

Brian K. Haus, professor and chair of the Department of Ocean Sciences, is co-principal investigator for the initiative. He is also the director of the Rosenstiel School’s Alfred C. Glassell, Jr. SUSTAIN Laboratory (SUrge-STructure-Atmosphere INteraction), a world-leading facility for studying the complex air-sea interactions of wind, waves, storms, and shorelines. In collaboration with Landolf Rhode-Barbarigos, assistant professor in the College of Engineering, Haus has been using the SUSTAIN facility to understand the benefits of hybrid artificial coral reefs for coastal protection.

“Our SUSTAIN laboratory provides an ideal platform for testing the wave attenuation characteristics of structures as well as scientific instruments, new materials, and commercial products designed for marine, atmospheric and coastal environments,” Haus said. “In addition to the hybrid reef pilot site developed with the City of Miami Beach, SUSTAIN will provide a large-scale test-bed to evaluate the design, test materials and develop new strategies to build resilient reefs to protect coastal communities.”

In 2019, Baker and Diego Lirman, another Rosenstiel colleague and professor in the Department of Marine Biology and Ecology, spearheaded the creation of the Southeast Florida Coral Reef Restoration Hub, a consortium of six Florida institutions supported by the National Coastal Resilience Fund of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Through these grants, Rosenstiel scientists and partners have been developing thermally tolerant corals, and trialing managed relocation and selective breeding of corals to build the resilience of Florida’s reefs. These approaches will be incorporated into the X-REEFS activities.

 Support from SECORE 

SECORE International, Inc., a leading conservation organization for the restoration of coral reefs, will also play an active role in the Reefense program, with Miami-based research director Margaret W. Miller, Ph.D., also serving as a co-principal investigator. Miller is a former research ecologist at the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center on Virginia Key, and a longtime collaborator with Rosenstiel scientists. 

“We look forward to employing recent innovations in materials science, hydrodynamic modeling and adaptive biology to develop growing reef structures that are optimized to rapidly implement coastal defenses suited to a changing environment,” said Miller.

The Reefense research team includes experts from across the University including professors from the College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as global experts in how reefs diminish wave energy from the University of California Santa Cruz; structural engineers and coral genetics experts from Pennsylvania State University; materials scientists from Johns Hopkins University and Texas A&M University; experts in reef ecology, coral breeding, and resilience from The Florida Aquarium, Florida International University, and the University of Florida; and chemical ecologists from the Smithsonian Marine Station. 

Global engineering firm AECOM will provide overall project management support as well as coastal engineering expertise that includes structural analysis and design of reef structures to withstand storms and sea-level rise.

“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. “Our X-REEFS team is well positioned for early deployment of Reefense ideas and technologies, and we are committed to improving coastal resilience against the impacts of climate change, using approaches that support healthy, resilient reef ecosystems. Our future depends on the lessons we learn in the next few years, and South Florida is ground zero to test these approaches. There’s almost nowhere else in the world where you can see the value of this research on such a regular basis.”