Healthy coral reefs are more than just hotspots of marine biodiversity—they’re also invaluable to long-term resilience against coastal storms.
Reducing Flood Risks by Restoring Coral Reefs
A new series of reports from researchers at the USGS Coastal and Marine Hazards and Resources Program, the University of California, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration demonstrates how the restoration of coral reefs along the coasts of Florida and Puerto Rico can save hundreds of millions of dollars in storm-related damages every year.
“We’ve known for a long time that reefs protect coastlines,” said Curt Storlazzi, a Research Geologist with the USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center and the project lead. “But now, using hazard assessment modeling data that is spatially explicit and rigorously quantified, we demonstrate how reef restoration can further protect coastlines and increase coastal resilience.”
In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which were climate-fueled, caused significant damage to coastal communities in Florida and Puerto Rico, not just to infrastructure but to natural barriers such as coral reefs, which help to dissipate wave energy before they flood coastlines.
“In these new reports we’re able to quantify just how much storms can damage our natural infrastructure—our coral reefs—and then evaluate, socially and economically, the consequences of those damages,” said Michael Beck, Research Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz and co-lead on the project.
The reports assess the coastal protection benefits of reefs in the same rigorous, economic terms that are usually reserved for artificial defenses such as seawalls and bulkheads.
“Those artificial defenses are supported by cost-benefit analyses—the hazard risk reduction benefits are compared to the cost of the built structures,” said Storlazzi. “What we’ve done is to quantify hazard risk reduction for potential coral reef restoration along Florida and Puerto Rico, finding that the cost-to-benefits for reef restoration are very high, in many cases much higher than costs.”
The reports also assess how, in the absence of restoration, coral reefs in Florida and Puerto Rico will continue to decline, further increasing the risk of flooding.
“In order to be able to protect our reefs, we have to know how valuable they are at protecting us,” said Beck.
And that is precisely what the reports find: Coral reef restoration across Florida and Puerto Rico could prevent more than $270 million annually in damage to buildings and economic interruption.
“Identifying where reef restoration could provide the greatest value is incredibly important, both for where we should be funding disaster recovery efforts, as well as where we can focus future resilience-building efforts,” said Beck.
By working with nature, the reports conclude, we can reduce present and future risks to coastal communities and save coral reef ecosystems at the same time.