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Nature’s Most Overlooked Benefit: Reefs Breaking Waves

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Indeed, looking at Petit Martinique from the air shows what you don’t see on the southern side of the fringing reef. You can see the reef below water, but you don’t see the waves breaking there as you do in front of St. Vincent. While the reef of Petit Martinique is still getting protection from bigger storm waves (waves break ~ when Wave Height = Depth of Reef Tops), their fringing reefs are not protecting it from the daily disaster.

Now consider that this daily disaster is playing out just behind Dexter’s town in the village of Windward, where their ancestors’ graves are being washed into the sea (see image above). It’s also happening in coastal towns and villages throughout Grenada and the Grenadines; the windward isles of the eastern Caribbean ecoregion; throughout the Caribbean; throughout the tropical Atlantic; throughout the tropics globally.

These Coral Reefs Are the Wall Between Us and Rising Seas

Conservationists often say that we are going to have to be proactive and smart about how we respond to climate change, because it will be impossible and too expensive to build a wall around whole towns, cities or islands (except, of course, places like New York City). But consider for a moment that in fact these fringing coral reefs are the wall — the natural infrastructure, sometimes 30, 60 or even hundreds of feet high — that rings villages, cities and whole islands. Think for one moment about the cost of erecting such a wall; and the benefits lost without it.

To save them, we are going to have to act fast and be much more proactive. On Petit Martinique, they are already heavily defending their shores — often house by house — with hastily erected breakwaters and gabions. Each small gray shore defense that goes in increases erosion just a little downshore and requires another gray solution in that spot. In Dexter’s town, they are pushing to get a whole breakwater wall — a project that will cost EC$3.5M at a minimum.

I can appreciate why they need to act now, but all of these fixes will be temporary. As sea levels rise and (far more importantly) if the barrier reefs continue to break down, then ever more wave energy will make their temporary solutions ineffective. These likelihoods are not currently accounted for in the engineering and design models for breakwaters (or it would become clear how unviable they might be).

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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.

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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