Understanding Reef Erosion to Better Insure the Risks of the Future -- Slideshow

Catlin's Seaview Survey shows that coral reefs, the first defense against coastal storm surges, are vanishing.

Google/Catlin Seaview Survey Google/Catlin Seaview Survey

Global specialty property and casualty insurer and reinsurer Catlin Group Limited has teamed up with Google Maps to provide landlocked viewers a glimpse into the secret and quickly-disappearing world of coral reefs as part of an initiative to better understand and insure developing risks.

Besides being a prime feeding and breeding ground for ocean life, the insurer says the reefs are a natural risk indicator that displays early signs of global environmental changes. Reefs also act as physical barriers that protect vital shoreline properties from storm surge, which is an increasing worldwide risk due to climate change.

“The Catlin Seaview Survey will use new technology to gather important scientific information about coral reefs that has never been previously collected,” says Stephen Catlin, chief executive of Catlin Group Limited. “Catlin is sponsoring the Survey so that we can better understand the changes that are occurring to our planet. We believe that the more we understand about what is happening to the world in which we live, the better we can decide how to insure the risks we will face in the future.”

The following photos are from the Seaview Survey.

Coral reefs cover less than 1 percent of the Earth's entire surface, and yet they provide food for over 500 million people globally and produce $375 billion annually through local tourism and fishing. Australia's Great Barrier Reef produces $1.5 billion, and Florida reefs generate $2.5 billion.

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, says that the world will lose more from eroding reefs than a source of natural beauty. Coastal reefs are a protective barrier between coastal infrastructure and storm waves, and are an untapped reservoir of material for pharmaceuticals- and we have lost 50 percent of our coral reef resources over the past 30 years.

“At the heart of the Catlin Seaview Survey is the principle that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. By giving countries from all over the world the opportunity to rapidly assess the state of their reef resources, this project will allow these countries the important baseline and rapid assessment technologies to measure the direction of change and to prioritize their management interventions.”

According to the latest National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data, $9 billion of the nearly $30 billion global net profit of coral reefs is created by the coastal protection they provide. Each meter of reef protects about $47,000 of property value, and in Florida, a coastline devoid of reefs would submerge large parts of the state.

Vanishing reefs also impact popular international tourist destinations. Reefs and mangroves in Belize help the country avoid $231 to $347 million in damages annually. In contrast, Belize's gross domestic product in 2010 was just $1.5 billion. 

It is possible to replace coral reef, but it is an expensive process. Artificial breakwater in the Maldives, installed as a replacement for lost reef, cost $12 million.

The Seaview Survey’s shallow reef team will utilize a revolutionary SVII camera with the ability to take continuous 360 degree high-definition images to explore at an average depth of 26 feet of water. The images will be GPS located and revisited to assess accurate visual change over time, allowing for accurate regional modeling of the effects of climate change.

The deep reef mission will go to “mesophotic” depths of 98 to 328 feet along the Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea. The Seaview Survey hopes to discover new species of fish and coral and answer questions about the ecology of deep-sea life, which the Catlin team describes as “a canary in a cave” that demonstrates signs of environmental imbalance.

The four locations being explored by the Seaview Survey are Heron Island, Opal Reef, Holmes Reef and Lady Elliot Island, known for its large manta ray population. Those following the expeditions can take a virtual vacation alongside divers as they post about their discoveries on a daily blog. 

Now is a crucial time for building policies to protect property owners from the threat of coastal weather disasters. More than four million U.S. homes along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts are vulnerable to storm-surge damage, putting the nation at risk of about $710 billion in property exposure. The coral reefs along southeastern Florida are the highest in latitude along the West Atlantic Ocean, and are situated close to the developed shoreline.

Image source: Google/Catlin Seaview Survey

More photos of the excursion can be viewed at www.catlinseaviewsurvey.com.

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