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How nature can protect us from natural disasters

An alligator swims in a lake at Myakka River State Park. [CREDIT: UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County]

An alligator swims in a lake at Myakka River State Park. [CREDIT: UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County]

Did you know that our beautiful Florida environment can protect us from natural disasters? These ecosystem services, or contributions that the environment provides for human well-being, are crucial during our times of need.

Coastal Wetlands

Coastal wetlands in Cedar Key, Florida. [CREDIT: UF/IFAS, Tyler Jones]

Coastal Wetlands can absorb water from storm surges and floods. They act like a sponge, soaking up water, and slowly releasing it in a safe manner into our water systems and aquifers. Studies estimate that coastal wetlands can reduce storm surges by 5-40% depending on location, vegetation, density, and a few other factors.

Coastal wetlands also help us mitigate the natural disaster of the century: climate change. Wetlands are notorious for carbon sequestration, meaning they absorb a lot of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is linked to climate change.

Mangrove forests

Picture of a mangrove forest in Lemon Bay Park, Sarasota County. [CREDIT: UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County]

Mangrove forests have thick, dense roots that slow storm surges which threaten our shorelines. However, this ecosystem service can only occur when there are hundreds of meters of mangroves. A recent study found that wave height can decrease by 13-66% over 100 meters of mangroves. This is one of the many reasons why it is important reduce habitat loss and fragmentation.

Mangroves can also reduce erosion, which helps prevent sea level rise and keeps our oceans healthy. Mangrove forests also provide a nursery-like habitat for the young fish and shellfish so vital to the biodiversity of our oceans and our fisheries.

Coral Reefs

Did you know that coral reefs protect the shoreline from wave energy? A study showed that coral reefs can reduce wave energy by 97%, on average! This ecosystem service is vital during hurricanes and storm surges.

Unfortunately, ocean acidification and coastal development are destroying our coral reefs. Ocean acidification occurs when the pH of the ocean decreases over time, which is caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Coral reefs are sensitive to acidity and cannot survive this change.

If coral reefs were to be completely destroyed, not only would we lose one of nature’s most beautiful habitats, but we would lose the ecosystem services that they provide. Those services are very expensive to replicate artificially. Researchers found that man-made breakwaters cost $19,971 per meter, while coral reef restoration only costs $1,290 per meter. It makes both environmental and economic sense to protect our coral reefs.

This is why it is important for us to take care of and protect nature. It can protect us, too, when we most need it.

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