Hurricane Beryl in the Caribbean could be a lot worse, if not for this hidden defense system

The hurricane season has started, and the first named hurricane of the year, Beryl, has strengthened into a dangerous Category 5 storm. Beryl has been moving northwest towards Jamaica after pummeling islands in the southeast Caribbean, including St. Vincent and the Grenadines, destroying homes and leaving at least one person dead. Beryl is already a record-breaker, being the earliest Category 5 storm on record in the Atlantic and rapidly intensifying from Category 1 to Category 4 in less than 24 hours.

Caribbean nations are particularly vulnerable to hurricanes, as these storms often travel from the Atlantic Ocean towards the Caribbean and the Southeastern US. However, Caribbean islands also have a natural defense system against superstorms like Beryl – coral reefs. These communities of living animals function together as natural seawalls, helping to dampen waves and reduce flooding. Research shows that coral reefs help dozens of countries avert billions of dollars in flood damage each year, both in the Caribbean and globally.

However, the problem is that these lifesaving ecosystems are vanishing due to climate change, the same factor that is making hurricanes more destructive. Each piece of coral on a reef is a colony of tiny animals called polyps that build skeletons out of calcium carbonate, forming the structure of the reef. These coral skeletons safeguard coastlines during a storm by dissipating up to 90% of wave energy. The bigger and taller the reef, the more wave energy it can dissipate, making a significant difference in flood risk and potentially saving billions of dollars in flood damage each year.

Despite their importance, Caribbean coral reefs have been declining in recent decades, with the area of live hard corals falling by about 80%. Elkhorn coral, a species known for its wave-weakening abilities, is especially endangered. Climate change is the most enduring and existential threat to Caribbean coral reefs. Warming ocean water disrupts the relationship between coral and a symbiotic algae that lives inside the polyps, causing coral to bleach and starve. Bleached corals are more vulnerable to other threats and often die, making it important to address climate change to protect Caribbean coral reefs and the human populations that depend on them for defense against storms.

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