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MIT’s bold plan to save the Maldives–and the world

Using submersible devices to harness the forces of nature, these researchers believe they can build artificial reefs around the world’s islands and coastlines.

Data says that sea levels are rising and islands like the Maldives may disappear forever. Scientists from the Self-Assembly Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have invented a technology that may avert this disaster by using ingenious submerged devices and the force of nature.

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According to Skylar Tibbits, codirector of the Self-Assembly Lab, right now there are three typical planning approaches to sea-level rise and storm surges. First, you can ignore it, which is a terrible idea. The second is to build barriers, walls, jetties, or levies to stop the sea–an approach that is, according to Tibbits, destined to fail. “Nature will almost always win and they are static solutions to a super dynamic problem,” he says over email. The third approach is to dredge sand from the deep ocean and pump it onto our beaches. It’s terrible, too, because it hurts marine life, is extremely energy intensive, and you’re condemned to repeat the process forever. The force of nature of nature is not going to go away, and it will always erode.

[Photo: courtesy MIT Self-Assembly Lab]
But what about if we could use the forces of nature to make the sand accumulate naturally and elevate the islands? What if the rising ocean current could help raise the land itself? This is what the Self-Assembly Lab Team and Invena, a Maldives organization fighting for conservation of the islands, are trying to do with the Growing Islands project.

The 1,192 coral islands that form the 26 atolls of the Maldives are sinking into the Arabian Sea at an alarming rate. The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change report predicted that sea levels for the country will rise about 23 inches by 2100, which means that 200 islands will sink, and the others will suffer greatly.

The MIT Self-Assembly Lab team — Nitzan Zilberman, Heather Nelson, Amelia Wong, Emile Therault-Shay, Bjorn Sparrman, Schendy Kernizan, Jared Laucks, and Skylar Tibbits — and the Invena’s Maldives team — Sarah Dole, Hassan Maniku, Ali Amir, Mommo Maniku, Fahad Shiham — want to change the course. Together, they are testing a system of underwater structures that look like two walls in an X plan. Strategically positioned according to currents, these structures will use the energy of waves to accumulate sand in different locations. They want to use this technology, which builds on the experience of the Self-Assembly Lab work for nearly a decade, to grow new islands and rebuild existing beaches.

“All of our work is based on taking simple materials, activating them with forces in their environment, like heat, moisture, pressure, wind, waves etc, in order to promote their structures to transform/assemble/reconfigure and otherwise do awesome things that they otherwise wouldn’t do,” Tibbits explains.

Instead of setting up artificial walls to fight the dynamic nature of the sea, he believes that we can use the force of waves and storms to make new land to emerge from the ocean to stop the islands from disappearing under the water.

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The Maldives project is the largest they have ever tackled. “We have done hundreds of lab experiments and physical simulations at MIT in our wave tank over the past year,” he says. “These tank experiments have been very successful, demonstrating sandbars that can form in tens of minutes.”

The first real-world test for this technology was installed in the Maldives in February, a 9.8 x 9.8-foot submarine structure that they are now monitoring using satellite imagery, drone footage, and physical measurements. Over the next year, as they gather data from the first test, they are looking to install two new field experiments that will study how changes in seasons and locations affect their sand buildup system. If all goes well, this will give them data about how to deploy their structures in the most effective way at a large scale.

While it’s too early to tell, Tibbits is optimistic that this type of approach should be able to achieve relatively fast results. In nature, extremely large sandbars many square feet in surface and reaching heights of 6.6 feet form in a few months. “This is the result of waves interacting with the topography of the sea floor,” he says, “so we know it is possible. The waves have enough force, the sand is highly active, and the coral or sand sea floor can promote this type of accumulation.”

[Image: MIT Self-Assembly Lab]
So the challenge here is not if this can happen, he says, but if they can promote it artificially in non-random and strategic locations to effectively grow islands and rebuild coastal areas.

My only question is a philosophical one: Could we really save the world’s coastlines and islands in the long run? Or will we eventually have to admit defeat in the same way as the Romans who didn’t try to rebuild Pompeii?

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Tibbits believes that we should fight the consequences of climate change no matter what. “I think island nations like the Maldives are truly a model for adaptability and resilience in the face of sea level rise and increased storm inundation,” he tells me. The nature of islands is that they can easily change, morph, grow, and adapt–unlike our man-made and static cities and infrastructure.

For Tibbits, the real challenge is whether we can do it fast enough to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. He is optimistic that the key to adaptation, resilience, growth, and transformation is not fighting nature, but using it to our own advantage.

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About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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