Lead Forensics

3D scanning helps study the impact of microplastics & climate change on living corals

Aug 8, 2023 | 3D Scanning, Research & Development

Researchers in Germany are using 3D Scanners to help study the long-term effects of global change stressors on coral species.

Coral reefs are complex and diverse marine ecosystems providing safe havens around the world for an estimated 7,000–8,000 species of young saltwater fish. With an abundance of food swirling around them, small fish can hide from large predators among a reef’s many crevices and winding passageways.

Despite what many people think, corals are fragile creatures, and very much alive. Each coral consists of hundreds to thousands of little creatures called “polyps.” These polyps are typically anywhere from 1-10 millimetres across, about as thick as a coin, with a soft outside structure, covering their hard, limestone exoskeleton.

The risk of extinction

Under relentless environmental pressures more than 50% of the world’s coral reefs have died off since the 1950s, due to climate change, overfishing, and pollution. Of those remaining, up to 90% may not survive the next 100 years.

Dr. Jessica Reichert is with a team of researchers at Giessen University, Germany, studying the long-term effects of global change on a variety of coral species.

The traditional approaches for determining coral dimensions, used either hot wax or aluminium foil, which meant that gaining precise, repeated measurements of a single living coral was next to impossible.

But at Giessen, neither of the older methods has been used for years now. Instead, they’ve fully adopted 3D scanning as their measurement tool of choice. With minimal contact, not only do all their coral survive each and every measurement session, but it takes just under a minute for a complete scan.

This has had a profound impact on their productivity. In Reichert’s words, “I usually scan about 50 corals in one afternoon, or 100 in a day. We were never able to work so quickly in the past, not to mention with 100% guarantee of safety for the coral.”

Two researchers are key to the scanning, as one handles the coral as they’re brought freshly wet from the aquarium and positioned on a rotating table to be scanned, while the other researcher undertakes the scanning.

Benefits of the new technology

The ability to scan through moisture has also proven useful. Reichert said, “Even though the corals are wet, the scanner captures them fine, without any problems in terms of reflectivity. We discovered this by experimenting with the scan settings.”

Their latest research has revealed that the rising levels of microplastics in oceans around the world are directly affecting coral growth and health. At the same time, corals are cleaning the waters around them by swallowing microplastics, confusing them for food, and then encapsulating them within their skeletons.

Contrary to what most people think, the biggest sources of microplastics aren’t luxury items such as shower gels and cosmetics. Instead, to a massive degree, the worst offenders are automobile tyre dust, synthetic clothing, and paint particles.

Reichert and her team are also investigating the question of whether ingested microplastics are weakening the coral structures and causing them to break more easily. If proven, this will further highlight how coastlines around the world are in peril of losing the only thing standing between themselves and storms and tsunamis: coral reefs.

See the full story at Artec 3D.

About The Blog

The PES Scanning blog provides information and news on the scanning and engineering services we offer. The blog also includes views from our team and information about projects we’ve been working on.