As climate change causes sea levels to rise throughout the United States, coastal cities are investing billions of dollars in flood protection measures such as levees, walls, and elevated infrastructure.
But investing in the resilience of coral reefs could be their best defense against increased flooding and extreme storms, according to a new study published by the US Geological Survey.
A team of researchers found that coral reefs shield $1.8 billion in economic assets throughout the US by providing a marine buffer against flooding events.
The sheer size of coral reefs helps to blunt the force of waves as they crash toward the shore. During extreme weather events, this blunting effect can keep streets from being flooded and homes from being destroyed.
This is especially true for states such as Florida, where sea levels are rising so rapidly that cities such as Miami could be submerged in the near future.
Florida’s reefs, however, are being impacted by the most tenacious coral disease ever recorded — and scientists have yet to map the nature of the disease and figure out how to stop it.
Protecting coral reefs in the context of climate change becomes all the more urgent because rising global temperatures pose a mortal threat to coral reefs.
Read More: 5 Coral Reefs That Are Dying Around the World
As ocean temperatures rise to extreme levels, they cause coral to undergo a process known as “bleaching,” which is when they expel the symbiotic organisms that give them color and provide them with food, turning white in the process. Multiple bleaching events in a row can cause entire reefs to die.
By 2050, scientists predict that coral bleaching could wipe out the majority of the world’s reefs.
A range of other factors threaten the long-term integrity of reefs throughout the US and the world, including ocean acidification, industrial pollution, and even plastic pollution.
The ongoing decline of reefs could have devastating environmental consequences for Florida and Hawaii, as well as the US territories Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Read More: Belize Praised for Saving Its Huge Coral Reef From Utter Destruction
The researchers found that coral reefs prevent flooding for 18,800 people throughout the US each year, and flood damages to 5,694 buildings that would amount to $825 million.
They also found that $699 in economic activity from individuals and $272 million from businesses is protected each year because of the protection afforded by coral reefs.
Governments can protect reefs in many ways — they can research cures for reef diseases, prevent pollution from contaminating reefs, and invest in bioengineering efforts for more resilient coral.
Read More: Baby Coral Declined by 89% Across the Great Barrier Reef
The best solution, however, would be to curb greenhouse gas emissions to prevent further global warming.
The team looked exclusively at the economic value of coral reefs from an insurance perspective. Other studies have found that coral reefs generate billions of annually around the world for the tourism and fishing industries.