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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

May 2021: Coral reefs act as natural barriers and offer protection from storm surges and coastal erosion. In the US alone, this ecosystem service is preventing $5.3 billion annually in potential flood damages for property owners and protects critical infrastructure such as hospitals, roads, or power plants. To ensure the continuation of this service, hazard managers, disaster recovery managers, and insurance funds should increase investments into coral reef protection and restoration measures.


Coral reefs are stewards of biodiversity and contributors to ecosystem services, tourism, fisheries, and recreation. Alongside these benefits, shallow energetic areas of reefs are often characterised by physically robust coral species that offer protection from floods and intense waves, particularly during extreme weather events. In the US alone, coral reefs prevent $5.3 billion in potential flood damages for US property owners. Researchers found that the US has 200 miles of high-value reefs that are worth more than $1.6 million per mile annually for flood protection alone, with most of these high-value reefs situated in Florida and Hawaii. In addition, coral reefs sustain the economy of 500 million people living in tropical coastal communities by offering safe havens to a range of fish species, protecting shorelines and industries.

Implications and opportunities

Climate change induced extreme weather events can lead to higher risks of flooding and coastal erosion, which, in turn, puts properties on shorelines at risk; hence, the owners will find it increasingly difficult to afford insurance. In addition, many critical infrastructures, such as hospitals, fire stations, roads, rail lines, and power plants are situated near the coast and at risk. Increased investments into coral reef restoration, protective measures, and active management to maintain the viability of high-value coral ecosystems would reduce the risk of costal erosion and other flood-related damages. Effective measures include, for example, the planting of robust coral species to improve reef health, abundance, and biodiversity of the ecosystem. This approach contributes to shifting the view of coral reefs as isolated ecosystems to being integral to a country’s natural infrastructure with public value. As such, coral reefs should remain within the spotlight of public policy purposes. This approach informs actions plans from coastal managers working on flood mitigations, coastal defence, transportation systems, and teams working on hurricane response and recovery strategies.


The provided economic estimates draw from combined computer data models of storms and waves with engineering, ecological, social, and economic tools and all figures should be seen within the context of the models’ limitations and variability.


Reguero, B.G., Storlazzi, C.D., Gibbs, A.E., Shope, J.B., Cole, A.D., Cumming, K.A. and Beck, M.W., 2021. The value of US coral reefs for flood risk reduction. Nature Sustainability, pp.1-11.

Sustainability Times (2021). The US’s coral reefs save billions of dollars in flood damage. Available at: