A bird's eye view of the Maldives. Shutterstock/Siraphob Werakijpanich

MIT researchers figured out how to build 'pop-up islands' that could save places like Hawaii from disappearing underwater

The earth's warming temperatures are already leading to catastrophic events like earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and landslides. But there may be a way to channel these disasters to protect coastal communities.

A group of researchers at MIT's Self-Assembly Lab is exploring whether the strong ocean current caused by natural disasters could be harnessed to fight sea level rise.

Their first project uses the current to gather small sandbars — which could eventually become islands — in the Maldives, a group of low-lying islands that could soon find itself underwater due to rising sea levels.

The process begins with installing underwater ramps, which the team describes as "low-cost, easy to deploy, and adaptable" to different climates. When a wave passes over the ramp with enough force, it brings sand particles along with it and drops them off below the ramp's edge. Over time, the sediment begins to accumulate and eventually forms a sandbar that peers above the ocean's surface.

Skylar Tibbits, the team's founder and a TED Fellow, recently presented these findings at the annual TED conference in Vancouver, Canada.

A number of years ago, one of his thesis students suggested that mudslides and landslides could be used to build parks, and Tibbits has carried the idea with him ever since. "It has always been on my mind that maybe we could take these natural disasters — earthquakes, tsunamis, windstorms, mudslides, landslides, fires — and build instead of destroy," he said.

His work is supported by Invena, an organization based out of the Maldives that looks for technological solutions to problems in island communities.

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The researchers tested their technology at MIT before deploying it in the Maldives.Skylar Tibbits/MIT Self-Assembly Lab

In February 2019, the two organizations tested their first experiment in the Maldives, and will continue to monitor the growth of sand over the coming year.

Though the Self-Assembly Labs' project relies on the ocean current to build sandbars, the force of tsunamis or windstorms could help accelerate the process. This would give coastal areas a way to rebuild in the wake of disaster — or create a natural barrier that might ultimately ward off rising seas. That's especially good news for places like Hawaii, where Waikiki Beach could be underwater in the next 15 to 20 years.

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