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Vt. researchers track hurricane impact on coral reefs

(WCAX)
Published: Dec. 20, 2019 at 3:05 PM EST
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New research in Vermont exposes the damage to coral reefs from a powerful hurricane this summer.

Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas on Sept. 1 with catastrophic consequences. Wind speeds of 185 mph slammed the islands, killing dozens of people and flattening homes. It's considered the worst natural disaster in the country's history, causing billions of dollars of damage.

And while the toll the storm took on land made headlines, right now, a Vermont researcher is looking at Dorian's impact underwater.

In Vermont, the trees are bare, ice and snow are on the ground, and it's been a lot colder than usual. So, it's the last place that you'd think coral reef research would be done. But our Cat Viglienzoni found out that in Waitsfield, there's a scientist doing just that.

"We're tracking their growth and survival over time," said Craig Dahlgren, the executive director of the Perry Institute for Marine Science.

Dahlgren knows many of the coral reefs around the Bahamas like the back of his hand.

"We literally know every inch of the reef. In some cases, we have been restoring those reefs for years, so we have actually planted some of those corals there and watched them grow," he said.

Dahlgren has been working in the Caribbean country for 30 years studying the coral reefs there. They even mapped in high-resolution detail on a couple of reefs. Detail that would set the foundation for their newest research after Hurricane Dorian hit.

"This is one of the first studies where we have data from throughout the whole area where the hurricane hit," he said.

When the storm cleared, the damage their drones saw on land was devastating. Underwater, he says some reefs escaped Dorian's wrath unscathed.

"Others were completely unrecognizable," Dahlgren said. "Just totally destroyed."

Videos they took while diving show the damage.

"This used to be a fairly healthy, vibrant reef; now, it's kind of a desert," Dahlgren said. "All these were living branches that just broke apart and are smashed up and turned into rubble."

He says it was hard to see reefs that took hundreds or thousands of years to grow smashed to pieces in just a day. Trash scattered throughout popular tourist diving spots.

"When houses broke apart, everything in them ended up on the reefs. So, we had lawnmowers, we had televisions, we had vacuum cleaners, we had plumbing and hot water heaters," Dahlgren explained.

Drone video they took shows large cracks in the reef he says were caused by the high waves.

"In some cases, the reef structure is just totally obliterated," Dahlgren said.

He says while Dorian set their coral reef recovery efforts back, he's hoping their research can help them and others figure out how to speed up future fixes.

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