April 15 (UPI) -- If all the reefs lining the coasts of the United States were just 3 feet shorter, damage from floods would be $5.3 billion greater, according to a new research.
The study, published Thursday in the journal Nature Sustainability, is the latest effort to quantify the money coral reefs in the United States save property owners, insurance companies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
To arrive at their estimates, scientists used computer models to simulate the effects of reef height on ocean waves and storm surges, and to gauge the threat of flooding along the coral-lined coasts of Hawaii, Florida, Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Researchers used details on demographics, infrastructure and property values to estimate the value of flood protection services offered by locals.
The analysis revealed the presence of more than 200 miles of high-value coral reefs, mostly in Florida and Hawaii, that provide flood damage protection worth up to $1.6 million per mile.
If the nation's most critical coral reefs were to shrink by 3 feet, scientists estimated 100-year flooding zones would increase in size by 23 percent, putting an additional 53,800 people at risk.
"Valuing the flood risk-reduction service of existing ecosystems is one step toward managing them as natural infrastructure," lead author Borja Reguero, an associate researcher at the University of California-Santa Cruz, said in a news release.
"This study provides new local information on how reefs protect communities at the building-block level, while maintaining a national focus for policy purposes."
Coral reefs don't just protect expensive beach houses. Researchers found coral reefs offer significant protection to a variety of vulnerable coastal communities. They also protect infrastructure critical to millions of people, including hospitals, fire stations, roads and power plants.
Scientists designed their models to simulate flood damage with and without the presence of coral reefs at a high degree of spatial resolution.
"Achieving this kind of definition required a complex modeling strategy to account for all the processes relevant in coral reef environments, which are significantly different to those driving flooding in other coastlines," Reguero said.
"The approach can also be applied to other ecosystems, and it now allows assessing the impacts of future changes in storms or sea level rise, too."
The research follows similar efforts to value the flood protection offered by coastal seagrasses and wetlands.
While the threats posed by sea level rise are expected to increase over longer time scales, researchers suggest the effects of coral reef losses could have immediate consequences.
"This work quantifies the critical role of reefs in flood mitigation and provides the evidence needed to invest hazard management, disaster recovery, and insurance funds in these natural defenses," said co-author Michael Beck, researcher professor in the Institute of Marine Sciences at UCSC.
"We are glad to see that some of the key data and results from this work are already being used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Nature Conservancy to inform reef restoration and new insurance options for reefs."