The news is grim: According to a report compiled by hundreds of scientists from 50 countries, Earth is losing species faster than at any other time in human history. Thanks to climate change, coastal development and the impacts of activities such as logging, farming and fishing, roughly 1 million plants and animals are facing extinction.
The UN report calls for rapid action at every level, from local to global, to conserve nature and use it sustainably. And here’s some potential good news: Many ecosystems now at risk can provide valuable services if they are protected.
I know from my research on coastal habitats that the biggest obstacle to investing in natural infrastructure, such as wetlands and reefs, often is that experts have not figured out how to value the protection that these habitats provide in economic terms. But a new report that I co-authored, published by the U.S. Geological Survey, solves that problem for one of our planet’s most biodiverse ecosystems: coral reefs.
This report shows that coral reefs in U.S. waters, from Florida and the Caribbean to Hawaii and Guam, provide our country with more than US$1.8 billion dollars in flood protection benefits every year. They reduce direct flood damages to public and private property worth more than $800 million annually, and help avert other costs to lives and livelihoods worth an additional $1 billion. Rigorously valuing reef benefits in this way is the first step toward mobilizing resources to protect them.
Breaking waves and blocking floods
Reefs act just like submerged breakwaters. They “break” waves and drain away their energy offshore, before it floods coastal properties and communities. This is an enormously valuable function. In 2017, tropical storms alone did over $265 billion in damage across the nation.
Manmade defenses, such as sea walls, can damage adjoining habitats and harm species that rely on them. In contrast, healthy reefs enhance their surroundings by protecting shorelines and supporting fisheries and recreation, from diving to surfing.
The flood protection benefits that reefs provide across the U.S. are similar to those in more than 60 other nations. As I estimated with colleagues in a separate study, the global cost of storm damage to the world’s coastlines would double without reefs.
Pinpointing local flood protection value
Our estimate of the value of flood protection from reefs applies state-of-the-art tools that engineers and insurers use to assess flood risks and benefits.
Using a model and more than 60 years of hourly wave data for all U.S. states and territories with reefs – a total area of over 1,900 miles – we developed flood risk maps projecting the extent and depth of flooding that would occur across many storms, both regular and catastrophic, with reefs present and then without them. We calculated these values in grid cells that measured just 100 square meters, or about 1,000 square feet – the footprint of a small house.
Then we overlaid these flood risk maps on the latest information from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to identify people and properties at risk – and benefiting from the presence of reefs – in each location.