USGS Study: Threatened coral reefs protect humans against coastal flooding

A new study by the U.S. Geological Survey underscores the need to protect and save threatened coral reefs around the world, particularly in the United States.

Climate change is currently devastating the world’s coral reefs by allowing the propagation of algae, which kills the coral. Algae is usually kept at bay by fish that live in coral reefs, but overfishing by humans and warming ocean temperatures have combined to decrease fish populations and allow the growth of algae to explode. Pollution by humans is also negatively impacting coral reefs.

Our oceans are not only suffering from the loss of coral reefs, human populations are, too, because the reefs actually help spare some coastal areas from flooding, which a USGS study revealed at the end of last month.

According to the USGS:

The research, led by USGS research geologist Curt Storlazzi, analyzed flood risk and assessed reef benefits of populated U.S. reef-lined coasts of Hawaii, Florida, American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It is the first time that scientists have combined real-world computer models of storms and waves with engineering, ecological, mapping and social and economic tools to create detailed, rigorous estimates of the value of coral reef defenses along U.S. mainland and U.S. insular area coastlines both in the long-term (annualized) and for more infrequent events such as 50- or 100-year storms.

The results show that “coral reefs annually protect $183 million worth of buildings and economic activity in Puerto Rico, $675 million in Florida and $836 million in Hawaii” alone. Overall, “18,000 coastal citizens and $1.8 billion worth of coastal infrastructure” are safer from flooding because of the reefs.

“This highlights the important role that coral reefs play not only for coastal communities in the U.S. mainland, but also in the U.S. insular areas,” Department of Interior Insular and International Affairs Assistant Secretary Doug Domenech said in a statement. “These research results will be of great interest to the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, a body tasked to lead U.S. efforts on coral reef ecosystems and that the Interior and the Department of Commerce chair jointly.”

It’s also a demonstration of how science saves lives.

“As this study shows, USGS science can help save lives, minimize property damage and reduce risks from natural hazards,” USGS Director James Reilly said. “Information at this fine resolution is critical to coastal managers and planners working on flood mitigation, coastal defense, transportation and hurricane response and recovery from the local to national scales.”

“Our goal in this study was to provide sound science to identify where, when and how U.S. coral reefs provide significant coastal flood reduction benefits to ultimately save dollars and protect lives,” Storlazzi added.

As coastal areas around the world and the United States face worse flooding because of the increased frequency of more powerful hurricanes, coral reefs are more important than ever.

Without them, we could see more destruction and casualties from flooding that could have been prevented had we done more to protect coral reefs.

The science is in and the warning has been issued. Now it’s only a question of whether government leaders will heed the warning and actually do something about it.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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Stephen D. Foster Jr.

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