Earlier this year, hurricanes Maria and Irma devastated the Caribbean, and that also included the its coral reefs, which were battered by the back-to-back storms that hit the region in September. And while the warming and acidification of the world’s waters are generally thought of as the biggest dangers to coral reefs, a new study suggests that hurricane damage might not have been far behind when Irma and Maria struck, though the damage didn’t seem to affect all of the reefs in the Caribbean.
For their new study, researchers from the University of Buffalo and California State University, Northridge traveled to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands in November to survey the damage hurricanes Maria and Irma wreaked on Caribbean coral reefs. According to Phys.org, the nature of the damage varied, as some coral colonies were covered by harmful algae, while others lost branches, or had open wounds covered in “feather-like” bacteria strands where pieces of coral had once been. There were also some sites where entire coral colonies were swept away as the two storms battered the Caribbean in September.
“Hurricanes generate huge waves. The effect is like sandblasting—the waves carry sand and debris, such as bits of broken coral, onto the reefs, striking them over and over again,” read a statement from University of Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences professor of geology Howard Lasker.
Commenting on how the September storms damaged Caribbean coral reefs, Lasker’s co-researcher Peter Edmunds, a professor of biology at Cal State Northridge, said that the damage was just as bad as expected in shallow waters. But when he and his colleagues studied the reefs found in deeper waters, they were surprised to see a more “nuanced” picture of things, as the hurricanes didn’t cause much damage at all, despite some obvious changes in some areas.
“It was still beautiful. There were corals, sea fans and some fish swimming around. Then you would look more closely, and you would see tumbled corals and missing corals in spots where you had seen corals just three months before. There were changes, but there certainly was a tremendous amount still there. I think it’s very encouraging.”
As explained by the International Business Times, corals are small marine creatures that are usually found in shallow waters no deeper than 200 feet below the surface, where they form colonies. These colonies are also home to a number of fish species and other marine animals, and since damage to such habitats could upset any given underwater ecosystem, that makes studying coral reefs for possible hurricane-related damage of great importance.
With that in mind, Lasker, Edmunds, and their fellow researchers conducted the new study to see how corals recover from hurricanes and natural disasters. And while the research made for an “interesting natural experiment,” Lasker stressed that there are some far more important things people can take away from the study, such as the knowledge of how the process of recovery works with marine animals like corals.
Going forward, the researchers hope to make several returns to the site in the coming months and years, as they plan to see if the Caribbean’s coral reef systems make a quick and successful recovery from the recent hurricanes or not. Additionally, more research may be needed on soft corals, which are believed to fare better than other corals after natural disasters, on the different variables that could affect reef composition, and on whether any changes that take place due to those variables are short-term or permanent in nature.