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Nature’s Most Overlooked Benefit: Reefs Breaking Waves

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The Daily, Global Disaster of Shoreline Erosion

While in Grenada, I met Dexter Miller on Petit Martinique (one of that country’s islands). We met on one of the few flat pieces of land on the island. Almost all his town’s livelihoods and lives happen on that one piece of land. Fishing is their main income, and the ports and docks are right there; boat-building is the second biggest income generator, and they make the boats right on this one strip of land, which also contains the town’s store and gas station; and this area also doubles as the soccer field.

But the shores of his town — this one flat piece of land — have begun to erode rapidly. And even more rapidly in the past few years. This land loss is not about the future of intensifying storms and sea-level rise; nor is it even about past storms like 1999′s Hurricane Lenny (“Wrong Way Lenny”), which everyone on the island still remembers vividly. The erosion is happening now with no storm in sight — we watched it biting in and taking away part of their shore every day. This is the daily disaster.

What’s behind this increasing erosion? Past sand mining certainly contributed to it — but the residents stopped that mining. What the erosion is likely most about is that the fringing reefs of Petit Martinique are dying. What few are recognizing — even in the conservation community — is how drastically that fringing-reef breakdown increases the wave energy hitting shores every day.

Mere inches of lost fore-reef depth (either because reefs are not growing or sea levels are rising) means substantially greater wave energy transmitted over the reefs and hitting shorelines (Field et al. 2011). This increase in wave energy is an engineering fact, well worked out for artificial breakwaters around the world.

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27 comments

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8:59AM PDT on Mar 29, 2013

noted with thanks

2:16PM PST on Nov 29, 2012

Thank you

2:37PM PST on Feb 8, 2012

Good point... learned something again... thanks!

4:46AM PST on Feb 3, 2012

Sounds good to me. When do we get started?

9:39AM PST on Jan 26, 2012

Thank you for this informative article!:)

5:18AM PST on Jan 24, 2012

Coral reef is an asset and tourist attraction.

7:24PM PST on Jan 23, 2012

nice :)

1:54PM PST on Jan 22, 2012

Hi Jennifer E.
On harnessing wave energy. This is a good idea but you need even more wave energy to make it cost effective (think of the coasts of Oregon and Tasmania).

Adding height to reefs with concrete is a good idea and it becomes a very good idea if you couple it with coral transplants on top of these blocks. this way you can grow a living skin of reef on top of these blocks. We have coral nurseries being developed in several places to test this idea.

Indeed a big reef is a lot of limestone with a skin of live coral on top.
Mike

4:57PM PST on Jan 21, 2012

Thank you, Mike, for this fascinating insight into a global issue. At one point, you mention the wave energy and its destructive effect on the shores. I wonder if one of the ways two birds could be killed with one stone, is to use wave collection technology to produce power and in the process, the waves would be reduced in energy, so less destructive.

The other thing which comes to mind, is adding height to the reefs with concrete blocks and stone. I know here in Australia, groynes have been used to protect beaches, though I haven't studied them by any means, so don't know the usefulness or long term effects of them.

11:43PM PST on Jan 20, 2012

Again, we must get to work on ending the destruction of our oceans, their polluting, their acidification, their overfishing. We act as the whole Earth is dead and that there are no consequences for destroying our support system.

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