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USGS research on the value of coral reefs as coastal protection informs state and territorial policies to protect, restore, and insure U.S. reefs.

Recent legislation passed in Hawai’i, Puerto Rico, and Guam are among the first such measures in the country to identify the value of restoring coral reefs for coastal hazard risk reduction, citing USGS research.

Hawai’i’s House and Senate recently adopted the joint resolution State of Hawai'i Bill SB-432 to designate the state’s coral reefs as critical natural infrastructure that help mitigate climate change-related risks and disaster events including exposure to storms, high wave events, sea level rise, and flooding. The bill cites the USGS-led study estimating that Hawai’i's coral reefs protect $836M worth of coastal infrastructure from flooding annually. In 2020, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico passed similar legislation, Law 72-2020 to Declare Coral Reefs as an Essential Structure for the Protection of the Coasts of Puerto Rico, based on the same USGS research.

These laws make it possible to use the hundreds of millions of dollars of pre-disaster hazard mitigation funds (such as those provided by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Inflation Reduction Act, or FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities) or billions of dollars in post-disaster recovery funding available for restoring coral reefs to protect people, property, and economic activity. 

At the request of the states and territories, the USGS worked with other federal and academic partners to develop guidance on how to use the USGS coral reef hazard risk reduction results to apply for such pre-disaster mitigation funding. The guide, released in December 2022 and titled “Coral Reef Restoration for Risk Reduction”, was a direct response by the USCRTF to the USGS-led assessment that calculated the value of U.S. coral reefs for risk reduction.


Video Transcript
Coral reefs act like submerged breakwaters by breaking waves and dissipating their energy offshore before they flood coastal properties and communities. This is an enormously valuable function: In 2017, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria alone caused over $265 billion in damage across the nation. USGS Research Geologist Curt Storlazzi explains how healthy coral reefs in places like the Caribbean and Pacific Islands serve as national, natural infrastructure. Restored reefs not only support critical biodiversity and coastal economies—they also reduce flood risks to coastal communities from storms and sea-level rise. Listen to the audio-described version.
Video Transcript
View audio described version. En español. The increasing risk of flooding along our coasts is driven by climate change, development and habitat loss. Powerful climate-fueled hurricanes such as Irma and Maria in 2017 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. 
Video Transcript
Along reef-lined shores of the Caribbean and Pacific Islands, USGS researchers study how stressors such as warming surface waters, nutrient runoff, and increasingly powerful storms impact the growth and health of reefs. Their work adds to a growing shift toward nature-based climate solutions: By working with nature and restoring degraded reefs, humans can reduce present and future risks to coastal communities and save coral reef ecosystems at the same time.  Learn more about Ferdinand Oberle’s work.


These developments come as the Biden-Harris Administration in May 2023 awarded $12 million through the “Investing in America Agenda” to local, federal, and territorial partners to combat climate change in the U.S. Territories. Of note is the $650,000 awarded to the USGS to conduct a rigorous valuation of locations where potential coral reef restoration could decrease the hazards of erosion and flooding faced by coastal communities in Guam, Saipan, and Tinian in the Mariana Islands; and Tutuila, Tau, and Ofu-Olosega in American Samoa. This will expand the work done by the USGS and others on this topic, which is necessary to support CR4 funding applications in the State of Florida and Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (supported by the 2018 Hurricane and Wildfire Supplemental funding) and in the U.S. Virgin Islands (supported by FEMA post-hurricanes recovery funding). 

In 2020, the Territory of Guam passed Guam Legislature Bill No. 372-35 (COR) to pursue insurance for coral reefs because of their coastal protection benefits based on this USGS research, and the State of Hawaii followed in 2021 by passing the similar Senate Concurrent Resolution SCR-159. Based on these requests, The Nature Conservancy released a report that explored the feasibility of insuring coral reefs in Hawai’i and Florida, which led to Hawai’i in 2022 purchasing the U.S.’s first-ever coral reef insurance policy

“It’s great to see that our basic research on coral reef hydrodynamics has led to applied research on the hazard risk reduction provided by coral reefs, which led to the adoption of U.S. laws, and now, a private-sector insurance policy for a coastal ecosystem to reduce the risk to, and increase the resiliency of, our Nation's tropical coastal communities,” said USGS Research Geologist Curt Storlazzi of the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center. “We couldn’t have developed this science without the dedicated support from the USGS Coastal and Marine Hazards and Resources Program and continuous engagement with federal, state, and local agencies and NGOs such as The Nature Conservancy, via the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force.” 

On October 26, 2023, the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force approved a resolution recognizing coral reefs of U.S. states and territories as national, natural infrastructure.  


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