There’s some fairly conclusive evidence to suggest that naturally occurring coral reef systems can help protect coastal areas against storm surges during hurricanes and other tropical weather. There’s some evidence that artificially augmented and repaired reef systems can do the same.
But there doesn’t appear to be much research on how an entirely artificial reef in an area in which extensive coral reefs don’t naturally occur might help protect a nearby coastline.
So it’s a little perplexing that an artificial reef was the first and most detailed suggestion in a draft report on how to make South Carolina more resilient against flooding and sea level rise that was released by the state Floodwater Commission last month.
It’s not necessarily a bad idea, of course. In fact, it could prove to be a great one. But we’re first going to have to learn a lot about how reefs work, how they might alter coastal ecology in South Carolina and how we could build one designed to fight back against storms.
That’s part of the proposal, which calls for a research initiative on the subject at one of South Carolina’s public colleges or universities.
A deeper dive into the science of coral reefs, South Carolina’s offshore ecosystems and how they mitigate increasingly severe and unpredictable weather would be indisputably a smart thing to invest in.
For now, an artificial barrier reef would probably not be.
It would almost certainly be prohibitively expensive, particularly if it is to eventually cover the entirety of the South Carolina coastline, and it could have potentially disastrous unintended consequences even if it were successful at the primary goal of helping block the worst impacts of storm surge.
It’s possible that studying the artificial reef proposal — which, again, is a smart thing to do — would suggest that the potential benefits outweigh the potential drawbacks and costs.
But we know so little about the idea, and so much about other proven flood prevention and water management techniques, that a moonshot idea like a barrier reef ought to be toward the bottom of the state priority list rather than at or near the top.
Focusing first on other recommendations like protecting and enhancing “living shoreline” ecosystems such as oyster banks, maritime forests and dune vegetation would have important impacts in terms of storm defense, for example, with less uncertainty and less investment in terms of time and cost.
So would straightforward state legislative interventions to free up local governments to channel more tax resources toward identified flood prevention and water management needs.
For Charleston and other vulnerable parts of the South Carolina coast, the challenges of stronger storms and higher seas aren’t hypothetical or in the future. We need to concentrate on the fixes we can implement now, while we study what might work in the future.