Amidst this seemingly never-ending surge of hurricanes, scientists are trying to unveil the destruction of one of the strongest storms ever observed in the Atlantic Ocean: Hurricane Irma. Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc in the Caribbean before tearing up the Florida Keys, devastating homes, buildings and power infrastructure all along the way. One major environmental factor has been noted since the passing of the disaster, correlating with the severity of the event.
Florida’s waters are home to the third-largest barrier reef in the world…but not for long. It is estimated that less than 10% of the 360-mile long reef is actually covered with living coral. It has become apparent to scientists that Florida’s already degraded coral reefs put the state in a vulnerable position against the storm surges.
What does this mean? The extreme loss of coral reefs (mostly due to global warming) over the past 250 years has allowed for more destruction on land. According to research geologist Curt Storlazzi with the U.S. Geological Survey, the degradation of coral reef health- healthy reefs having rough surfaces, unhealthy having smoother surfaces- increases flooding opportunities onto land. Healthy coral reefs help break waves offshore, dispersing the wave energy that is released so only small amounts make it onshore.
Widespread bleaching and dying off of coral reefs may not have been the cause of Hurricane Irma, but in this case, the coral reef was Florida’s first line of defense, and human-caused increases in greenhouse gasses have helped warm waters and degrade this natural source of shore protection. With the majority of the Florida Reef Tract diseased or dead, coupled with the rising of sea levels due to melting glaciers and expanding seawaters, how could Florida begin to put up a fight?
Not only has climate change enhanced the devastation of Hurricane Irma, but Harvey and Maria as well. Four of this year’s hurricanes have gone on to become Category 4 or 5. Hurricane season has only just begun, and three of those hurricanes have hit U.S. territories with terrifying strength. These back-to-back disasters are already breaking modern records, and it’s time we started connecting the dots and understanding our role in the scheme of things.
Please support hurricane recovery:
- Florida (Hurricane Irma) – Volunteer Florida
- Puerto Rico (Hurricane Irma and Maria) – Fondos Unidos de Puerto Rico
- Caribbean (Hurricane Irma and Maria) – The Dominica Hurricane Relief Fund
- Texas (Hurricane Harvey) – The Greater Houston Community Fund