Coral reefs aren't just pretty to look at: They also act as a natural flood protection barrier from powerful ocean storms.
But with reefs in danger around the world, much of this valuable flood protection could be lost. A study released Tuesday pinpoints the value of coral reefs, finding coastal flood-related damages around the world would be twice what they are now if not for this natural flood barrier.
On average, the entire planet's coral reefs are worth some $4 billion annually in flood protection, said study lead author Michael Beck, a scientist at the Nature Conservancy and a professor at the University of California - Santa Cruz. Closer to home, he said "the United States receives nearly $100 million annually in direct flood reduction benefits from its reefs.
"The U.S. ranks 8th globally in terms of annual reef benefits to people and property in places such as Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam."
The countries with the most to gain from reef conservation and restoration are Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Mexico and Cuba. Per capita, the study found reefs provide the most benefits to small island states including the Cayman Islands, Belize, Grenada, Cuba, Bahamas, Jamaica and the Philippines.
The devastating damage from recent tropical cyclones such as Hurricanes Irma and Maria and Typhoon Haiyan would have been much worse without coral reefs, the study found. Coral reefs are best at protecting coasts from the biggest waves during powerful storms.
"Unfortunately, we are already losing the height and complexity of shallow reefs around the world, so we are likely already seeing increases in flood damages along many tropical coastlines," Beck said. "Our national economies are normally only valued by how much we take from nature. For the first time, we can now value what every national economy gains in flood savings by conserving its coral reefs every year.'
Globally, coral reefs face many threats, including coastal development, sand and coral mining, destructive and excessive fishing, storms and climate-related bleaching events.
Overall, the frequency of severe coral bleaching events has increased nearly fivefold in the past four decades, from once every 25 to 30 years in the early 1980s to once every six years in 2016, a study published earlier this year found.
Tuesday's study adds to a growing body of research that calculates the monetary value of assets and services that nature provides us for free, Agence France-Presse reported.
Mangrove forests, for example, also protect against storm surges and serve as nurseries for dozens of aquatic species. They are disappearing at the rate of 1 to 2% each year, scientists say. In addition, bee populations that pollinate tens of billions of dollars worth of crops each year are collapsing, AFP said.
"Coral reefs are living ecosystems that can recover if they are well-managed, and this study identifies why and where we should find the needed support for restoration and management," Beck said. "It is our hope that this science will lead to action and greater stewardship of reefs around the world.'
Tuesday's study appeared in the peer-reviewed British journal Nature Communications.
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