MS in Civil Engineering (M.S.C.E.)
Degree Granting Department
Civil and Environmental Engineering
Maya Trotz, Ph.D.
James Mihelcic, Ph.D.
Rebecca Zarger, Ph.D.
Caribbean, disaster response, operational adaptation, pandemic, resilience
Climate change is increasing threats to coasts, both from storm surge and sea level rise. Healthy coral reefs provide reduction in storm surges, wave energy, coastal flooding and everyday erosion, and are found across a variety of spatial scales. Given the state of coral reefs worldwide, active Coral Reef Restoration (CRR) in emerging as a necessary component of coastal protection. CRR can be classified as a nature-based solutions (NbS) for coastal protection that also provides a multitude of ecosystem-based services to both humans and other life. Nearly all literature on coral restoration efforts assume a steady-state of human-ecological interactions, but the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and the resulting global disruption has shown that this steady-state is not guaranteed.
This study aimed to examine CRR operations and coral reef ecosystems in the context of COVID-19 in the Tropical West Atlantic (TWA). Three research questions were posited to guide this research: 1) How is the COVID-19 pandemic directly and indirectly impacting coral reef restoration work in the TWA?; 2) How is the COVID-19 pandemic indirectly impacting the vitality of the coral reef ecosystems monitored/restored by TWA CRR programs?; and 3) How can CRR programs be resilient to future global-scale disruptions?
To answer these questions, 11 TWA CRR practitioners were surveyed on how their program and the reefs their program serve have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. They were then asked to describe any operational changes their program had made or was planning to make in response to their experience with the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey was completed online between September 3rd and 14th of 2020. Data on confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths in each surveyed country/region as of September 4th, 2020 were also collected.
Survey results showed that the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted CRR in the TWA. The most indicated causes of disruptions by CRR practitioners fell into the categories of financial lack/uncertainty, lack of reliable workforce, and inability to access field sites. These disruptions were largely driven by government protocols of stay-at-home orders and travel/boating restrictions that impeded CRR workers’ ability to perform regular work. CRR practitioners were also widely disrupted by governmental closing of borders to international travel that vastly diminished tourism and any work travel. Coral reef ecosystem health faired differently from site to site, but four respondents reported a decrease in reef fish populations and fish size. All respondents indicated either implemented or planned operational changes to their CRR program in response to COVID-19, including hiring more local workers, diversifying funding, and developing distance learning workshops. In addition, three possible partnerships between CRR practitioners and civil and environmental engineers (CEEs) were suggested, including remote monitoring of CRR sites and reframing CRR programs as NbS to coastal erosion and storm hazard.
While this thesis is a case study of the COVI|D-19 pandemic, its findings have implications beyond this single event. Some of the disrupting factors of this COVID-19 case study are specific to a pandemic event. However, many of the other disrupting factors - such as decreases in tourism, inability to access site(s), and financial uncertainty – are likely to occur in other major disruption events, like an economic crisis or a natural disaster. As such, many of the stated adaptation strategies, both of the CRR practitioners and those recommended for partnership with CEEs, are important to the overall resilience of CRR programs in the face of any major disrupting event.
Scholar Commons Citation
Cheek, Linden, "Coral Reef Restoration in the Tropical West Atlantic Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic" (2020). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.