Hurricane Ian shows that Florida is prone to severe storms. Coral reefs can help.

Hurricane Ian wasn’t fair Powerful Storm, but a preview of what’s to come. Climate change helps hurricanes Faster condensation, lead to larger storm surges, and cause more precipitation — all of which make hurricanes more destructive and costly. One of Ian’s early assessments indicates that it costs the same 40 billion dollars in property damage.

Engineers have long defended the threat of hurricanes by building structures such as dams and seawalls. However, these tools are imperfect. They can harm the environment, do not always block water, and they can be The price themselves.

Hurricane Ian destroyed part of the Sanibel Bridge in western Florida.
Steve Helper/AFP

But for many communities, a simpler (and cheaper) solution can be of great help: restoring reefs.

Coral reefs are among the many ecosystems, including mangrove forests and wetlands, that can protect us. They act like natural breakwaters during a hurricane, helping soften or “break” waves that can inundate homes and offices near shore.

The problem is Coral reefs are dying.

Besides disease and pollution, climate change – the same force that makes hurricanes more harmful – has been wiped out. Half of coral reefs in the world. Scientists say that to protect our coastal cities, we must also protect and restore coral reefs.

What is the value of coral reefs?

Across the United States, coral reefs help protect the homes of more than 18,000 people and avoid $1.8 billion in flood damage each year, according to a recent report. Analytics From the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

Florida, home of the world third largest Barrier Reef, receives a large portion of those benefits. The analysis found that reefs provide flood protection to more than 5,600 Florida residents and prevent $675 million in damage to property and people’s livelihoods each year.

Coral reefs reduce the amount of energy in waves at a rate of about 97 percent, unlike the way a speed bump slows a car. Waves with lower energy are smaller, slower, and don’t cause much damage when they reach shore.

Even just a small difference in reef height can make a big difference in risk, according to the study It was published last year in the magazine temper nature. Flood risk is often measured in what is called a 100-year-old flood zone – an area where the chance of flooding in a given year is 1 percent. The study found that if coral reefs in the United States lost one meter in height, that area in the United States would grow by 104 square kilometers (or about 26,000 acres), putting an additional 51,000 people at risk of flooding.

This is a big reason why losing coral reefs is so frightening. “These losses could escalate flood risk in just a matter of years to levels not anticipated by sea level rise for decades or a century,” the authors said. temper nature Study books.

Homes destroyed in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Florida.
Wilfredo Lee/AFP

Build reefs with the help of the world’s largest hurricane simulator

On a sunny April afternoon, I stood inside in front of a hotel the only device In the world he can create a Category 5 hurricane in the lab. Located in a large building at the University of Miami in Virginia Key, it consists of a pool-sized tank, a wave generator, and a roaring jet engine blasting off in strong hurricane winds.

On that day, the simulator was filled with about a meter of water. In the center was a submerged structure made of hexagonal hollow tubes. Scientists are using the simulator to test how well structures like this (called a “sea cell”) are at damping wave energy, with and without corals.

From a desk with three computer monitors, a doctoral student operated the device. The jet engine hums and ocean-like conditions inside emerge. The gusts of wind created a texture over the water, which erupted in waves that crashed into the sea cell – it was a storm in a glass case.

Landolf Rhode-Barbarigos, associate professor at the University of Miami, enters a hurricane simulator to secure a “seahive” structure for a demonstration.

Scientists use the simulator to test structures like these in ocean conditions.

When structures like a sea cell have corals on them, they can more effectively reduce wave energy, in some cases reducing it by as much as 95 percent, according to Landulf Rod Barbarijos, a researcher at the University of Miami.

Before the end of the year, Rod Barbaregos and other scientists plan to flood a few different structures, including sea cells, in North Miami Beach. They will be growing corals on each other to test them in real world conditions for the first time.

The University of Miami restoration project is considered a “hybrid” approach because it includes a man-made structure and a living coral reef. But dozens of initiatives around the world—many in Florida—involve cultivating corals directly on dying or damaged reefs, As I mentioned in April. One of the main selling points of these projects is that they can help protect coastal communities from storm surges.

Liv Williamson, a doctoral researcher at the University of Miami, captures young corals. These tiny coral colonies are part of an experiment on disease.

Researchers have been at the University of Miami and elsewhere as well development Coral colonies that grow quickly and are better tolerated by rising ocean temperatures, disease and predation, often with some Abroad Approach. The idea is to regrow corals that can tolerate the forces that have wiped them out.

If corals are so valuable, why not pay more for them?

The United States spends nearly $500 million annually to reduce coastal flooding and related threats, according to USGS. In some years, these numbers are much higher: the Army Corps of Engineers has spent 15 billion dollars In 2018, for example, in projects to prevent flood and storm damage.

These numbers make what cities spend to restore ecosystems like pennies. The nation’s largest coral reef restoration project, an initiative in the Florida Keys called Mission: Iconic Reefs, has received only About 5 million dollars in federal funding.

“Money for disaster management and climate adaptation is tens to hundreds of times greater than the money for habitat conservation and restoration,” according to the authors. temper nature study Wrote.

Damaged homes and streets seen after Hurricane Irma passed through Big Pine Key, Florida, on September 13, 2017.
Joe Riddell / Getty Images

This is starting to change as government agencies view coral reefs as a defense against tropical storms. One such example is the seahive project, which was initially funded by National Collaborative Road Research Program (which is in turn funded by the federal government Government).

The Ministry of Defense is also spending millions of dollars to buy coral reefs Restore through “DARPA’s”countrysideThis is a big deal because it allows a huge amount of new money to preserve and restore the reefs,” said Andrew Baker, a coral reef researcher at the University of Miami who helps form the reefs. More resistant to extreme heat.

Ultimately, protecting and restoring coral reefs is about much more than just protecting coastal cities. Although they cover less than 1 percent of the world’s oceans, coral reefs sustain them a fourth for all marine life and Half of all federally managed fisheries. It’s hard to think of a better example of how we can help an ecosystem help ourselves, too.

Update September 29, 5:35 p.m.: This story was originally published on May 4 and has been updated with information about Hurricane Ian, which reached Florida on Wednesday, September 28.

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