Restoring coral reefs is key to mitigating the impact of hurricanes


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Coral reefs are beautiful, colorful, and vital to biodiversity, but their longevity is also in question.

“We are now at the point where most reefs around the world have seen up to 50% decline in the amount of living coral,” said Lauren Toth, research physicist with the US Geological Survey.

Toth said that after thousands of years of growth or stability, 85% of reefs in the Florida Keys are now shrinking due to disease, temperature swings and storms, according to new findings from the US Geological Survey.

“The changes we’ve seen over the past 50 years in the Florida Keys really reflect what we’ve seen happening on reefs around the world,” Toth said. “They are currently eroding at such a rate that parts of the reef could disappear in several hundred years, which seems like a long time, but it is a lot of structure that is lost.

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Scientist Lauren Toth says there is a decline in living coral.

The loss described by Toth puts coastal residents and property at greater risk during storms.

Curt Storlazz of the US Geological Survey’s Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center explained how reefs mitigate the impact of a hurricane.

“It causes the waves to break, and when the waves break they dissipate energy, so the height of the waves decreases,” he said. “What we’ve shown is that coral reefs across the United States protect $1.8 billion worth of infrastructure and economic activity and more than 18,000 people annually.”

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Curt Storlazzi says reefs can break up 97% of wave energy.

Storlazzi said reefs can break up 97% of wave energy and cited Hurricane Fiona which hit Puerto Rico in September. He said without the natural protection of the reefs, the storm which reportedly killed up to 25 people could have been much worse.

“We have no time to waste,” said Andrew Baker, a professor in the Department of Marine Biology and Ecology at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science. “We need this coastal protection now.”

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Andrew Baker and his team design hybrid reefs using concrete shapes.

Baker’s team designs hybrid reefs using concrete forms. They use wave tanks to test reefs in simulated storm forces.

Baker said the goal is to create stronger structures that thrive in concert with natural reefs. The project is supported by a grant from a branch of the US Department of Defense.

“I think it’s a real stamp of approval that this approach is worth exploring,” Baker said. “It allows us to think big and try a whole bunch of different methods to try to build stronger reefs as quickly as possible.

Toth said if some of the coral reef restoration efforts that are currently underway achieve their goals, reef growth can be restored to levels we haven’t seen in 7,000 years.

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