(CN) – Ahead of this year’s hurricane season for the Atlantic Basin, research released Monday suggests that wetlands could serve as better and more cost-effective protection from such storms than engineered solutions such as sea walls and levees.
In a paper published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, economists from the University of California, San Diego, studied the property damage caused by hurricanes and tropical storms over a 20-year period.
What they discovered is that U.S. counties with more wetlands suffered much less property damage than counties with fewer wetlands. Richard Carson, senior author and an economics professor at UC San Diego, said wetlands act as a natural buffer against the strong storms.
“Wetlands play a critical role in helping to reduce property damage from storms. With coastal areas under increasing threat from more powerful storms due to climate change, it’s critical to prevent further destruction of existing wetlands,” Carson said. “Government should also actively seek to restore wetlands that have been lost.”
Carson and his colleagues determined that one square mile of wetlands represents a value of $1.8 million a year in property protection. They added that this number increases in areas of high population where hurricanes and tropical storms are more likely to hit.
To determine the effectiveness of wetlands, the authors examined all tropical storms and hurricanes on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts between 1996 and 2016, looking at the damage done to 232 U.S. counties.
In their examination, they determined that all types of wetlands – freshwater, saltwater and forested – contributed to a significant reduction of property damage.
The official hurricane season in the Atlantic Basin runs from June 1 to the end of November. Three of the four most devastating hurricanes, Hurricane Harvey, Maria and Irma all occurred in 2017 for an estimated $290 billion in damage combined.
Using their model to estimate the effects of wetlands on property damage, the study authors determined Hurricane Irma’s damage would have lowered by about $430 million if 19 counties affected by the storm had not lost 2.8% of their wetlands.
Carson said that more efforts should be made to preserve wetlands from climate change in order to protect humans living in coastal communities.
Coinciding with the paper’s release, a separate study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change also warns of climate change effects on the coasts, stating that half of the world’s sandy beaches could disappear by the end of the century.
Michalis Vousdoukas, of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, and his colleagues first analyzed satellite images of shoreline changes from 1984 to 2015. Using that information, they were able to determine future erosion caused by both natural factors and climate change.
They determined that about 50% of sandy beaches around the world are at risk of severe erosion. While some countries, such as The Gambia in West Africa, could lose more than 60% of sandy coastline, they determined Australia would be the greatest affected with a loss of almost 7,400 miles.