I just read an editorial in PNAS asking whether or not decommissioned oil rigs should be converted to artificial reefs. A very intriguing study was recently published by Claisse and others showing that oil rigs were remarkably productive habitats, similar in many ways to natural reefs but in fact outperforming their natural counterparts in most metrics. This study impressed me because it completely contradicts my prejudices about oil rigs as sites of terrifying environmental decay. Indeed, some part of my brain finds it plausible that oil rigs might be capable of ripping holes in the spacetime continuum and releasing arcane beings best left forgotten.
I’ve thought about the value of artificial reefs several times in the past. When I took the Pearl Harbor tour in Honolulu, I was distracted from the history by the beautiful reef flora and fauna that had colonized the sunken ships.
Similarly, when they demolished the old Cooper River Bridge in Charleston, SC, I remember speculating about how its steel bones would be a wonderful substrate for oysters in an area that was increasingly too muddy for them to grow (alas, apparently the reef plans were ultimately scuttled for financial reasons). In both of these cases from some of my favorite places in the world, manmade structures provide critical habitat for benthic (seafloor-dwelling) organisms that often have trouble finding places that are solid enough for them to attach.
The editorial strikes a cautionary tone, and says that we shouldn’t necessarily jump the gun about using rigs as reefs. There are obviously many other variables to consider, some of them ecological, some of them financial, most involving both of those factors. Nevertheless, I find the notion of wedding technology with nature aesthetically delightful. Chalk this up with garden-topped skyscrapers, living hydrogen fuel cells, and food trucks that run on their own waste cooking oil. It’s irrational to think we can restrict human expansion to save the environment, but it’s not crazy to imagine a green future where nature adapts to and incorporates our technologies. Innovation, evolution, and the innate human love of beauty can provide as many solutions as dirigiste environmental policies to the conflicts between the technological and natural worlds.