Damage to Florida’s coral reef has made the state more vulnerable to storm surges
As we begin to piece together the damage from Hurricane Irma in Florida, scientists are pointing to an environmental factor that may have made the storm’s impact worse: the ongoing loss of coral on the state’s increasingly threatened barrier reef.
At 360 miles long, the Florida Reef Tract is the third-largest barrier reef in the world, stretching from the Florida Keys up to Martin County. But as Chris Mooney of The Washington Post reported just a few months ago, the reef is in big trouble — scientists estimate that less than 10 percent of it is covered with living coral, the result of a long history of damage that, most recently, includes warming waters and back-to-back bleaching events in recent years.
Now, scientists say these losses may have weakened the reef’s storm buffer.
Research demonstrates that “if you reduce coral reef health — if you go from that really rough coral reef with lots of live coral to a degraded coral reef with a relatively smooth surface — you have increased run-up in flooding,” said Curt Storlazzi, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.