Coral reefs serve as a natural flood protection barrier from ocean storms, but as reefs around the world are threatened because of climate change and man-made activities, this valuable protection could be lost.

Natural Breakwaters

Coral reefs serve as natural breakwaters that can reduce flooding by dampening the waves and reducing their energy.

Through models commonly used in the insurance and engineering sectors, Michael Beck, from the University of California-Santa Cruz, and colleagues sought to quantify and value the benefits provided by coral reefs to flood reduction.

They compared current floodings with those that could happen if the top 1 meter of living coral reef is lost. The findings revealed that flood damages around the world would double in the absence of coral reefs.

Beck and colleagues said that without living coral reefs, the yearly anticipated damages from flooding would increase by $4 billion, and costs from frequent storms would increase threefold.

Flooding could quadruple with a meter or more rise in sea level. Big 100-year storms, which have a 1 percent chance of occurring in a given year, could raise flood damages by 91 percent to $272 billion.

Reef Management

The researchers said that the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, and Cuba have the most to gain from proper reef management. Reef conservation and restoration could save each of these countries over $400 million in annual flood expenses. The United States can also benefit from $100 million in annual flood savings.

"The challenge will be to maintain, improve and restore healthy reefs, which will likely require more innovative effort in the areas where the protection benefits are greatest, i.e., directly adjacent to populated areas. Better decisions in coastal development could reduce risks to both people and reefs," the researchers wrote in their study, published in Nature Communications on June 12.

Besides alleviating the costs related to flooding, coral reefs also provide other economic benefits from fisheries and tourism. Unfortunately, coral reefs around the world are threatened by coastal development, excessive fishing, sand and coral mining, storms, and climate-related bleaching events.

Saving Coral Reefs

Coral reefs are living ecosystem that can recover when managed well. Researchers are looking into the potentials of induced spawning and in-vitro fertilization of corals to save coral reefs. Researchers hope that laboratory-bred "super corals" may help repopulate dying coral reefs. Australia has already committed half a billion dollars in finding in an effort to save and restore the Great Barrier Reef.

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