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Coral reefs for coastal protection

This month marks the beginning of the Atlantic hurricane season, and forecasters are anticipating another year of heightened storm activity. Coral reefs are an essential natural defense, protecting coastal communities from waves and floods caused by severe weather.


Photo by NASA on unsplash

According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), "a likely range of 13 to 20 named storms, of which 6 to 10 could become hurricanes, including 3 to 5 major hurricanes is expected." This outlook is based on warmer than average sea-surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic and climate factors, such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). In addition, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) began issuing regular Tropical Weather Outlooks as early as May 15 this year, weeks ahead of the hurricane season's official start on June 1.

When these storms release their destructive potential, coral reefs play a critical role in protecting our coastlines. According to the 'Reefs at Risk' report by the World Resources Institute, "over 150,000 km of shoreline in 100 countries receive at least some protection from coral reefs." They serve as a coastal buffer from waves, storms, and floods, helping to prevent loss of life, property or infrastructure damage, and erosion. Reef-building species, like the endangered elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), act as natural breakwaters and protect our coastlines by absorbing up to 90 percent of the wave energy. Unfortunately, this Caribbean species suffered a massive decline during the last decades. If reefs are damaged or destroyed, the absence of this natural barrier can conversely increase the impact of wave action on coastal communities.


Reef-building elkhorn coral in Curaçao (Photo by Paul Selvaggio)

A recently published paper considers "the hazard risk reduction benefits of U.S. coral reefs to exceed US $1.8 billion annually". In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that "with a 1-m loss in reef height, the 100-year floodplain would increase across the U.S., imperiling 51,000 people and $5 billion in property and economic activity." On a global scale, an early study from 2003 placed the net value of coral reefs for flood protection at $9 billion per year. Another more recent publication estimates that the topmost 1 meter (approx. 3 ft) of coral reefs provides flood reduction benefits during 25-year events resulting in $36 billion avoided damages of global capital. Thus, coral reefs play an incredibly important role in defending shorelines worldwide. If these valuable ecosystems disappear, wealthy countries will have to heavily invest in artificial coastline protection. Less privileged coastal communities, however, may face a permanent loss of homes and businesses. 


Aerial view of a coastal community on the island of Caye Caulker near Belize (Photo by dronepicr on flickr (CC BY 2.0))

At SECORE International, our vision is "A world where thriving coral reefs support healthy oceans for future generations." Coral reefs have been safeguarding our coasts for millennia, but this natural defense is disappearing at an alarming rate at present. Support SECORE today and help us have an impact in saving this vital ecosystem!


Read more:

Beck, M.W., Losada, I.J., Menéndez, P. et al. (2018) The global flood protection savings provided by coral reefs. Nat Commun.

Cesar, H.J.S., Burke, L., and Pet-Soede, L. (2003) The Economics of Worldwide Coral Reef Degradation. WWF-Netherlands

Reguero, B.G., Storlazzi, C.D., Gibbs, A.E., et al. (2021) The value of U.S. coral reefs for flood risk reduction. Nat Sustain.

Storlazzi, C.D., Reguero, B.G., Cole, A.D., et al. (2019) Rigorously valuing the role of U.S. coral reefs in coastal hazard risk reduction: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2019–1027

World Resource Institute (2011) Reefs at Risk Revisited

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Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium
The Builders Initiative
The Ocean Foundation
California Academy of Science

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