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Sci Adv. 2018 Feb 28;4(2):eaao4350. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aao4350. eCollection 2018 Feb.

Coral reef structural complexity provides important coastal protection from waves under rising sea levels.

Author information

Center for Marine Environmental Sciences (MARUM), Bremen University, Bremen, Germany.
Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research, Bremen, Germany.
The University of Queensland, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, New York, NY 10964, USA.
School of Environmental and Life Sciences, The University of Newcastle, Callaghan, New South Wales, Australia.
Centre de Recherches Insulaires et Observatoire de l'Environnement, USR 3278 CNRS-École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE)-Université de Perpignan Via Domitia, Laboratoire d'Excellence (LabEX) "CORAIL," University of Perpignan, 66860 Perpignan, France.
EPHE, PSL Research University, CNRS LETG 6554, Dinard 35800, France.
LabEX CORAIL, Perpignan, France.
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, The University of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia.
UWA Oceans Institute, The University of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia.
Australian Institute of Marine Science, Perth, Western Australia 6009, Australia.
Geocoastal Research Group, School of Geosciences, The University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.


Coral reefs are diverse ecosystems that support millions of people worldwide by providing coastal protection from waves. Climate change and human impacts are leading to degraded coral reefs and to rising sea levels, posing concerns for the protection of tropical coastal regions in the near future. We use a wave dissipation model calibrated with empirical wave data to calculate the future increase of back-reef wave height. We show that, in the near future, the structural complexity of coral reefs is more important than sea-level rise in determining the coastal protection provided by coral reefs from average waves. We also show that a significant increase in average wave heights could occur at present sea level if there is sustained degradation of benthic structural complexity. Our results highlight that maintaining the structural complexity of coral reefs is key to ensure coastal protection on tropical coastlines in the future.

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