Scientists Put a Price Tag on Saving Coral Reefs, and They’re Worth A Lot

Coral reefs might have an inherent beauty and value to wildlife and marine ecosystems that’s priceless, but if we did have to put a dollar amount on their value, it turns out they’re worth quite a bit of money.

That money isn’t coming from tourism either, it’s coming from the ecosystem services coral reefs provide protecting us from floods by acting as buffers that reduce the power of waves, which significantly reduce flooding and erosion.

According to a study conducted by researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), The Nature Conservancy and the University of California-Santa Cruz, overall that flood protection is worth more than $1.8 billion in the U.S. and its territories.

For the study, researchers analyzed the risks of floods and benefits of reefs along the coasts of Hawaii, Florida, American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands by creating flood risk maps to forecast what would happen with different types of storms with and without reefs present, and figured out where people and properties would be most affected.

“Our goal in this study was to provide sound science to identify where, when and how U.S. coral reefs provide significant coastal flood reduction benefits to ultimately save dollars and protect lives,” said the study’s lead author, USGS research geologist Curt Storlazzi.

According to the USGS, it’s the first time scientists have combined real-world computer models of storms and waves with engineering, ecologic, mapping, social and economic tools to create estimates of the value of coral reefs in the U.S. that give us a picture of the long-term, along with scenarios for more infrequent events, such as 50- or 100-year storms.

While the cost benefits varied by location, researchers found that every year reefs protect more than 18,000 people from flooding, prevent flood damage worth more than $825 million to more than 5,694 buildings, protect critical infrastructure, and save millions in damages due to what would be lost economic activity.

“Most people have no idea how valuable coral reefs are for coastal protection,” said co-author Michael Beck, a research professor at UC-Santa Cruz. “Now we do. Reefs act as submerged breakwaters, ‘breaking’ waves and dissipating up to 97% of their energy offshore. While these may look like general, ‘back of the envelope’ numbers, they are not. They are based on what are now the best flood risk maps available for U.S. coastlines, predicting risk at 10 meters by 10 meters, which is about one one-hundredth the area of a city block.”

As Beck pointed out to the Honolulu Star Advertiser, the U.S. spends an average of $500 million every year trying to mitigate coastal hazards by building seawalls and other structures, but coral reefs are already providing a free and natural solution. FEMA is considering how to include them in its policies on flood mitigation, while insurance companies can also get involved. The Nature Conservancy and public and private partners in Mexico have set up a trust fund for a reef insurance policy that will make funds available for restoration in the event of a natural disaster.

“We should be investing in reef management and insuring our investment so that we can keep those benefits in the years to come,” said Kim Hum, Hawaii Marine Program for The Nature Conservancy. “If you have a resource that is worth more than $800 million, you want to insure it against damage.”

While coral reefs are becoming increasingly threatened around the world, hopefully the findings here will provide another incentive to protect and restore them, and this information will be used to identify especially important areas that are keeping us safe.

Photo credit: Getty Images

75 comments

Lara A
Lara A23 hours ago

Thanks very much

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Shared

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Important in

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Tyfs

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salah zoubiriyesterday

Great article

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Tyfs

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Priceless

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salah zoubiri
salah zoubiriyesterday

Absolutely

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Jan S
Jan S2 days ago

Thank you

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Hui S
Hui S3 days ago

thank you for posting this. everything that exists in nature has a larger, more long-term and collective purpose that we often fail to see.

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