Scientists get early look at hurricane damage to Caribbean coral reefs


Charlotte Hsu writes about scientists (supported by the National Science Foundation) who got early look at hurricane damage to Caribbean coral reefs, affirming that “storms act as an interesting ‘natural experiment’— a rare chance for researchers to study how corals recover from disasters.” Let us all hope for a quick recovery! See full video here [credits: Video of healthy reefs (0:01 to 0:21), Georgios Tsounis, California State University, Northridge. Video of reef damage and researchers at work: Jacqueline Krawiecki, University at Buffalo] and full news release at the SUNY- University at Buffalo site.

When hurricanes Maria and Irma tore through the Caribbean, they not only wreaked havoc on land, but also devastated ocean ecosystems. Coral reefs off St. John, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, suffered severe injury during the storms, say scientists from the University at Buffalo and California State University, Northridge who traveled there in late November to assess the damage — the first step in understanding the reefs’ recovery. Some coral colonies lost branches. Others were cloaked in harmful algal growth. Many — weakened by the hurricanes — were left with ghostly, feather-like strands of bacteria hanging off open wounds where bits of coral had been scraped off.

Researchers also observed sites where whole coral colonies, akin to individual trees in a forest, had been swept away by the fury of the storms. “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,” says Howard Lasker, PhD, professor of geology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences. Lasker led the research trip with Peter Edmunds, PhD, professor of biology at Cal State Northridge.

The team, funded by the National Science Foundation’s rapid response research program, spent two weeks aboard the F.G. Walton Smith, the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science’s research vessel. Scientists said damage varied by location.

“In shallow waters, what we found certainly lived up to our expectations — holy, moly this was bad news,” says Edmunds, who has spent 31 years studying St. John’s reef. “But when we went deeper, it became more nuanced,” Edmunds continued. “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.” The team included scientists from UB, Cal State Northridge, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, National Park Service and Georgia Aquarium.

[. . .] The recent hurricanes presented a rare opportunity for Lasker and Edmunds to study how corals recover from disasters — an important line of research in a warming world where rising ocean temperatures are stressing reefs. “It’s an interesting natural experiment,” Lasker says. “You could not, in good conscience, conduct such an experiment on your own as a scientist, and it is sad to see these beautiful places in the ocean damaged so severely. But we can learn from this — it gives us the chance to better understand the process of recovery.”

[. . .] Lasker compares the effect of storms on reefs to the effect of wildfires on forests. “Hurricanes have always occurred,” Lasker says. “They can cause extensive damage, but then the populations start to recover. It’s analogous to forest fires: After a number of years, the forest starts returning. There’s a period of disturbance, and then the system recovers.” [. . .] “These are magnificent ecosystems,” he says, “and we really know very little about how they change and recover after disasters.” [. . .]

[Before and after views of a coral reef off the coast of St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. The reef, vibrant and full of life, is pictured in 2013 (left). The same reef is shown from a different view in 2017 (right), after hurricanes Maria and Irma tore through the region. The reef is now more sparsely populated, with many coral colonies either severely damaged or swept away. Credit: Howard Lasker.]

To view Cal State Northridge’s news release on the research trip, visit

See full article, video, and photos at

One thought on “Scientists get early look at hurricane damage to Caribbean coral reefs

  1. I wouldn’t worry much about the coral reefs when it comes to hurricanes… I think it’s safe to say they’ve seen much, MUCH worse than some silly hurricanes over the millions of years of their existence. They’re much smarter than us and will always find a way to recover.

    Now the big question is, is the same thing true when it comes to man-made damage to the reefs…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s