Coral reefs are vital lines of defense against hurricanes. But their future is uncertain

Hurricane season has kicked off with Beryl, the first Category 5 storm ever to form in the Atlantic Ocean.

Beryl has since been downgraded to a Category 4, but the storm was still expected to bring life-threatening wind gusts and storm surges to Jamaica on Wednesday.

Normally, coral reefs serve as a crucial form of natural coastal protection against such powerful storms. But warmer ocean waters are putting their future in doubt, while hurricanes are predicted to become more powerful.

When the water gets too hot, corals (living things) bleach and sometimes die.

“Unfortunately, we are now experiencing bigger and more intense storms, and that is due to climate change,” Nicola Smith, an assistant professor of biology at Concordia University who has studied coral reefs in the Bahamas, said in a recent interview.

“So you lose the reefs that can protect these communities, when they need that protection more than ever.”

Fishermen pull a boat damaged by Hurricane Beryl back to the jetty at Bridgetown Fisheries in Barbados, Monday, July 1, 2024.
Fishermen pull a boat damaged by Hurricane Beryl back to the jetty at Bridgetown Fisheries in Barbados on Monday. (Ricardo Mazalan/Associated Press)

How Coral Reefs Protect Coastlines

Jennifer Koss, who studies coral reef conservation, described a healthy coral reef as “nature’s seawall.”

“You have this huge bulwark that actually acts as a huge source of friction and slows down the waves, breaks them up and prevents a lot of that energy from getting to the shore, which erodes the shore … and damages the infrastructure behind it,” said Koss, director of the coral reef conservation program at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Research suggests that coral reefs could potentially reduce wave energy by 97 percent. For that reason, they are “absolutely essential to protect low-lying islands from damage,” Michael Risk, professor emeritus of Earth, environment and society at McMaster University, said in an email.

Research has also shown that coral reefs have the capacity to regrow if damaged during storms, and for growing up to provide protection against rising sea levels.

WATCH | Hurricane Beryl rages towards Jamaica:

Hurricane Beryl heads towards Jamaica after killing six

Jamaica was placed under a curfew as Hurricane Beryl made landfall. The Category 4 storm killed at least six people and caused significant damage across the southeastern Caribbean.

Mass bleaching

But coral reefs are struggling to cope with the unprecedented ocean heat. Nearly all coral reefs in the Atlantic, Florida and the Caribbean have suffered severe losses. NOAA confirmed a global mass bleaching event in April.

“When those bleaching events go on for too long, the tissue dies and you see this stark white skeleton. And over time, that hardened structure erodes and you lose the protective value of the reef,” Koss said.

“If corals are not given enough time to recover from mass bleaching, we will ultimately lose that valuable structure… not only for coastal protection, but also for biodiversity, food security and the many other ecosystem services that corals provide.”

WATCH | Scientists explore ways to restore coral reefs:

Florida’s coral reefs are suffering, but this may be the way to save them

Coral reefs in the Florida Keys have been decimated by disease, human activity and rising ocean temperatures. CBC international climate correspondent Susan Ormiston met the scientists who engineered new coral in a lab and planted it in the wild to try to restore a crucial ecosystem.

Risk said warming ocean temperatures and land-based pollution are putting the future of coral reefs in doubt. He said that after corals die, the structure lasts for a maximum of 10 years.

Researchers are working to prevent bleaching. In some cases, Koss says, that’s done by physically blocking off the water above coral reefs.

According to Koss, a hurricane or tropical storm can also help cool the water and relieve pressure on coral reefs, provided the storm is not too powerful and does not hit the reefs directly.

“As a conservationist, it’s actually pretty crazy to pray for a storm or prolonged cloud exposure to offset the effects of bleaching,” Koss said.

This year’s hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30, is expected to be much busier than normal due to record-warm waters.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *