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Waves breaking on a coral reef in Hawaii. (Photo: Bill Schildge/Design Pics/Corbis)

Coral Reefs Absorb 97 Percent of the Energy From Waves Headed Toward Shore

This finding applies to reefs around the world

smithsonian.com

It's no secret that natural structures such as coral reefs, sand dunes and mangroves help protect water-front communities from the impacts of waves, storm surge and even tsunamis. A group of researchers decided to home in on coral reefs, however, to see just how significant their universal role is in breaking waves. And they found that coral reefs absorb a whopping average of 97 percent of wave energy—nearly all of it.  

The team looked at coral reefs from all over the world, by performing a meta-analysis of 27 peer-reviewed scientific studies that focused on individual reefs. Those studies, they explain, examined everything from pleasantly breezy conditions to hurricane-force winds. 

After the researchers crunched the numbers, they said they were shocked at the extent to which the reefs absorb that wave energy. "It is a huge reduction," lead author Fiorenza Micheli said in a statement. "The majority of wave energy is lost on the reef crest."

She added that that means coral reefs' effectiveness is on par with that of man-made structures built to shield coasts by dissipating wave energy. Where those two methods differ, however, is in cost. Artificial structures run about $19,800 per meter to build, she said, whereas coral reef restoration project add up to about $1,300 per meter. That's not to mention their other benefits, including "support of biodiversity, improved water quality, and support of fisheries and tourism," Micheli added. 

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