Coral Reefs To the Rescue

If humanity had an option to inhabit other planets, perhaps we would not be invested in finding means to mitigate climate-change fueled extreme weather. The scorching and flooding cycles would have forced us to evacuate and migrate to another planet while the earth repaired herself.

Unfortunately, the option of mass interplanetary migration is not feasible yet. And we are challenged with the task of speeding up the earth’s repair process while we are still here and continuing to degrade it further. The race against time for conservation efforts is getting tighter than ever. The increasing human occupation on land and the weather patterns deviating more and more from what was considered “normal” or “average”, potentially gives us less time to prepare for natural disasters like floods, storms, and heat waves.

Less time means prioritizing mitigation efforts in areas that could be most impacted. Mitigation efforts are driven by predictive analytics, which is powered by accurate, relevant, and reliable data. With a powerful track record of assisting FEMA in disaster mitigation and recovery, our Data Science, Analytics & Management team explores the option of using nature-based sustainable alternatives that can help with conservation efforts and also protect against natural disasters.

Based on current research, coastal flooding can affect thousands of vulnerable coastal communities. Given the magnitude of sea level rise in the recent past, the impacts of coastal flooding are predicted to worsen. Nature-based solutions such as coral reef restoration can play a major role in reducing coastal risks, while re-balancing coastal ecosystems. The hydrodynamic behavior of coral reefs creates an effect of functioning like low-crested breakwaters, that can substantially reduce coastal flooding by dissipating 97% of incident wave energy. Although there is a growing recognition of the benefits of coral reefs to improve natural defenses, there is a lack of quantitative assessments and association with engineering performance to underline the social and economic benefits.

To close this gap, we have developed a case study that quantifies and establishes a direct relationship between the height of coral reef and dollar values of losses that can be avoided. Leveraging FEMA’s open-source Flood Assessment Structure Tool (FAST), and open data from the US Geological Survey (USGS) and the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), we quantified the economic benefits of coral reef conservation in the Hawaiian Islands.

Our FAST-based case study explores a scenario modeling coastal flooding resulting from the loss of the upper 1 meter of coral reefs. The study analyzes the Average Annual Loss (AAL) and losses avoided based on a series of 4 flood scenario return periods with and without coral reefs. Using open data from USGS and USACE, FAST combined structure data with flood depth information and damage functions developed by the engineering community to estimate flood impacts for every building in a study area. Given structure data and a depth grid, FAST calculates economic losses, building damages, and debris for approximately 10,000 structures per second.

We found that the preservation of the upper 1 meter of coral reefs for the main islands of Hawai’i provides the state with $629 million in annual losses avoided to buildings. A hot spot analysis of the losses avoided identifies areas where conservation efforts could be prioritized. 

These findings endorse the efficacy of nature-based solutions in disaster risk mitigation and demonstrate an applicable methodology using accessible tools and data. The dollar value of losses avoided provides an easy and relatable way to gain alignment with the decision-makers to initiate efforts for climate conservation and mitigation against natural disasters.

Contact us for more information on FAST.