The last few weeks have been a brutal reminder of the power of nature, with Hurricanes Irma and Harvey forcing millions from their homes and causing unprecedented destruction. There are a lot of ways to attempt to quantify these storms with numbers, each of them more troubling than the last: $200 billion in damages to the U.S. economy, nearly 900,000 people who requested disaster assistance, 123 dead.
As those affected slowly get back on their feet and begin the rebuilding process, there's another number that will eventually require our attention too: the amount of marine life that's gone.
"Throughout the hardest hit areas in the Caribbean and the Keys, you're likely to see significant breakage of a lot of topmost shallow corals," says Mike Beck, the lead marine scientist at environmental nonprofit The Nature Conservancy. "I don't know how much direct monitoring is going on right now, though I do know some likely impacts."
He explains that for the most part, corals that live along the coast have adapted to high-energy environments, full of waves, fish, and people swimming and surfing. However, they can't stand up to the massive waves that find their way to land during hurricanes. "As long as they're still there, and as long as the waves haven't caused them to break down, they're providing that benefit. In a similar way, mangroves are protecting us from storm surge and wind."