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This could be a total game changer for reefs under environmental threat (read: all of them).

By Marisa Spyker

If you’ve been snorkeling or diving around a coral reef recently, then you might’ve noticed less color, vibrancy, and even fish. One of our world’s largest and most diverse ecosystems is under serious threat—and everything from plastic pollution and warming seas to certain types of sunscreen are to blame.

But there’s a new type of sunscreen scientists are hoping will do more good than harm, and it doesn’t come in a bottle at all. Researchers at the University of Melbourne and the Australian Institute of Marine Science recently developed a sun shield that’s designed to sit on the surface of the water and protect fragile areas from the effects of a destructive force called coral bleaching.

The effects of coral bleaching are seen at a reef off Cocos Island in the Pacific.
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Brought on by increased ocean temperatures and overexposure to sunlight, bleaching happens when algae leaves vulnerable coral, destroying its main food source and causing the coral to turn white. If left bleached too long, the coral will eventually die. 

Coral bleaching is one of the biggest threats to all reefs, and has affected more than two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef.  In response, the Australian government has set aside millions of dollars for research to create and test solutions—one of which is the sun shield. The screen, which is 50,000 times thinner than a human hair, rests atop the water’s surface and acts like an umbrella, blocking up to 30 percent of the sunlight. In trials, “the surface film provided protection and reduced the level of bleaching in most [coral] species,” a representative from the Great Barrier Reef Foundation said in a statement.

Researchers note that the shield isn’t practical for large-scale deployment, but rather would be used as a spot treatment for areas that are particularly valuable or vulnerable. 

We’ll be keeping an eye on this project—and in the meantime, we’ll also be doing our part to save coral reefs on our next vacation.

Related: Meet Our 2017 Ocean Heroes: