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In June 2016, a violent storm lashed the Sydney coastline, hammering it with waves up to eight metres high that sent water surging up to 50 metres inland. As a marine ecologist at the University of New South Wales, Emma Johnston knew the storms were coming and knew what potential they had. But even then, the damage they inflicted on her very own neighbourhood shocked her: a hole blasted in the wall of the local surf club, a backyard pool toppled over a beach cliff, and huge chunks washed out of the much-loved northern beaches coastline.
The incident starkly illustrates both our love for the ocean and why we fear it so much. “We love the sea, we swim into it, live near it, build beside it, 70% of the world’s mega-cities are built on coast, and we even fantasise about living under the sea,” she says. But we’re also terrified of it. Almost every culture has a flood myth of some kind, and our entertainment plays on this with films such as the Poseidon Adventure, Waterworld and Titanic. For much of our history, our response to this fear has been to try to control the marine environment and manage its impact on us. We resort to ‘hard engineering’ – dams, sea walls, dredged channels – in an effort to tame the wildness of the ocean. But Johnston argues these endeavours are ultimately doomed to fail. “The sea has a habit of taking back its own.”
Instead, Johnston is advocating for ‘blue engineering’ – the marine version of the ‘green engineering’ movement on land that has seen nations like Singapore reclaiming the walls and roofs of the concrete jungle with plant life.
Blue engineering isn’t just some hippie ideal; it’s a blunt necessity. We are encroaching further and further into the marine environment – 60% of China’s mainland coastline is built upon, Indonesia has plans for an enormous sea wall to protect Jakarta, and our oceans are dotted with thousands of oil rigs and offshore wind turbines with ever more being planned and built.
But this new land-grab risks doing irreparable harm to marine environments and ecosystems. These are the ecosystems that nourish the fish and marine species that constitute 16% of global animal protein intake, that are home to underwater forests as essential to the marine world as the Amazon is to the terrestrial biosphere, and which make our coastlines such wondrous and attractive places to spend time in. Blue engineering is a perfect way to preserve these ecosystems.
“We’re loving the sea to death,” Johnston says. “We’re not been thinking about design of structures with respect to ecology.”
“Every time I dive I realise how little we know about how marine environments work,” Johnston says. But with a new mindset of retreat, restoration and blue engineering, she feels there is cause for hope. “I am looking forward to the beginning of new era of construction in marine environments.”
Why is “blue engineering” a blunt necessity?
1) It can help to build the sea walls to protect Jakarta
2) It can help China build a proper coastline
3) It can protect people from the sea’s dangers
4) It can protect nutritious ecosystems