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Oil and gas rigs can actually help corals to thrive

Posted August 17, 2018

There are certain words that immediately make environmentalists cringe. For example, “oil platform” – people immediately assume it is going to break, building and maintaining it will inevitably result in pollution and it is generally a bad thing to have in the ocean. However, a team of scientists led by the University of Edinburgh found that oil and gas rigs could be helping at-risk corals thrive.

One of many oil platforms in the North Sea. Image credit: Erik Christensen via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A lot of corals around the world are in deep trouble due to human activity. Ocean acidity is raising and pollution is always a common attribute to maritime operations. However, there is another side of this story. In the North Sea coral populations are surviving thanks to man-made structures, such as ship wrecks and oil and gas rigs. These structures help maintaining dense populations of corals spanning for hundreds of miles across international borders. Now, scientists are not saying that rigs may not have a negative impact – they certainly pose a risk in terms of invasive species. But at the same time they have a potential to help conservation efforts.

A team of scientists used a computer model to see how corals might be using man-made structures to spread. They also observed some coral larvae, released near oil platforms. They appeared to travel using rigs as a point to jump forward. In this way a strong network of corals is created and maintained. Scientists say that this basic principle would allow Lophelia pertusa larvae recolonize damaged reefs and protect areas from invasive species. Of course, corals cannot damage these man-made structures (especially if it is just some sunken ships). However, some of these platforms may be removed from the area quite soon.

Some of these oil and gas rigs have been in operation in the North Sea since 1970’s. Scientists say that this research could help making more informed decisions about decommissioning. Dr Lea-Anne Henry, one of the authors of the study, said: “We need to think very carefully about the best strategies to remove these platforms, bearing in mind the key role they may now play in the North Sea ecosystem”. These structures help corals to get into marine protected areas. They are really helpful for survival so, whenever possible, old platforms should be left behind, especially the lower sections of them that are not easy to reuse anyway.

People are altering the environment all the time and the impact is mostly negative. However, in some ways nature can benefit from our behaviour and employ our infrastructure for its own survival. That is natural adaptation to the situation, which has always been a key to survival.


Source: University of Edinburgh

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