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This Sculpture Takes the Great Barrier Reef’s Temperature

‘Ocean Siren’ changes colors in real time to reflect ocean temperatures at Davies Reef, part of Australia’s ailing Great Barrier Reef

Artist Jason deCaires Taylor's “Ocean Siren” changes color according to the average daily water temperatures measured at Davies Reef on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Recently, marine heatwaves have wreaked havoc on the Great Barrier Reef, causing the most widespread bleaching ever recorded. (Jason deCaires Taylor)
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Standing more than 12 feet tall above the water in Townsville, Australia, an illuminated outdoor sculpture transforms the planet’s rising ocean temperatures into a colorful display, reports Katie Dundas for Atlas Obscura.

The sculpture is modelled after Takoda Johnson, a local student and descendent of Australia’s indigenous Wulgurukaba people. The sculpture looks out across the water, holding a shell high above her head.

The piece’s noble posture and vibrant colors belie the grim reality it represents. When the sculpture, called Ocean Siren, lights up in pinks and reds, that means a weather station some 60 miles away at Davies Reef on the Great Barrier Reef detects above average daily water temperatures.

Unusually warm water might sound innocuous or even pleasant, but, for the corals that form the backbone of the roughly 3,000 individual reefs that make up the Unesco World Heritage Site, warm can be deadly.

In April, a marine heatwave caused the third mass coral bleaching event in the last five years. A full quarter of the Great Barrier Reef suffered severe bleaching—which means more than 60 percent of the reef’s corals ejected their symbiotic zooxanthellae algae—changing from a kaleidoscope of colors to bone-white, reports Graham Readfearn for the Guardian. It was the most widespread bleaching event ever recorded on the world’s largest living structure.

Ocean Siren’s colors reflect the ocean’s temperature in real time, going from dark blue to dark red. Speaking with Atlas Obscura, the sculpture's creator Jason deCaires Taylor says, “I think part of what’s happening in our underwater world is that it’s sort of forgotten and misunderstood… It’s out of sight… Yet major changes are happening, and major ecosystems are being lost. So, I wanted to bring that threat right in front of our faces… and to convey in real time what’s happening.”

First installed in 2019, Ocean Siren was the first piece of Queensland’s new Museum of Underwater Art (MOUA) to be installed and the only one visible above the ocean surface. Now, the first of the museum’s three underwater sculpture gardens is finished and, once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, ready for wildlife, snorkelers and divers to visit, reports India Block of dezeen.

Divers install the "Coral Greenhouse" underwater sculpture at John Brewer Reef. (Jason deCaires Taylor)

The underwater sculpture, called the Coral Greenhouse, is made of pH-neutral cement compounds and corrosion resistant 316 Stainless steel, according to a statement. The choice of materials is meant to encourage the artwork’s colonization by corals and other marine creatures. The Coral Greenhouse is around 60 feet underwater and is anchored to the sandy, flat bottom in an inlet of John Brewer Reef by huge slabs of concrete, according to Antonia Wilson of the Guardian.

The stainless-steel beams form an A-frame structure that deCaires Taylor tells the Guardian provides “minimal resistance to wave energy, while providing an ideal surface for filter-feeding organisms and schooling fish to congregate.” Inside the underwater structure, the artist’s signature human figures sit and stand along workbenches replete with nooks and crannies that fish and crustaceans might use as refuge from predators.

Inside the "Coral Greenhouse." (Jason deCaires Taylor)

“As the Coral Greenhouse is slowly colonized and built upon by the reef, it will be gradually absorbed into its surroundings,” deCaires Taylor tells dezeen. To give the artwork a head start, parts of it have been seeded with coral plantings, per dezeen.

According to the Guardian, deCaires Taylor has created unique underwater sculptures all over the world, including Grenada, Mexico, Lanzarote and the Bahamas. Additional installations for Australia’s MOUA are planned for 2021 at Queensland’s Palm Island and Magnetic Island, per MOUA’s website.

In an interview with Atlas Obscura deCaires Taylor says he hopes his underwater sculptures help people understand that, “what happens in the sea affects us directly, and affects our livelihoods, and the future of our species. And I think [one] of the best ways to inspire people is to show them how incredible it is—and how important it is to continue to conserve it.”

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