Date of Graduation

Spring 5-18-2024

Document Access

Project/Capstone - Global access

Degree Name

Master of Science in Environmental Management (MSEM)


College of Arts and Sciences


Environmental Management

First Advisor

Stephanie Siehr, Ph.D


Increasing anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have led to more heat being trapped in the atmosphere, raising our overall global temperature. The hottest recorded sea surface temperatures in Southeast Florida occurred in 2023 causing extreme coral bleaching and high mortality in part of the Florida Reef Tract (FRT). Coral reefs play a vital role in protecting coastal communities from storm surge and sea level rise, reducing wave energy by up to 97% across whole reefs. However, with increasing ocean acidity and thermal stress from climate change, coral ecosystems are struggling to maintain their structural complexity and overall health, much less provide substantial protection to human communities. Through a literature synthesis, environmental assessment, environmental justice analysis, and an analysis of risk management strategies, I assess the FRT’s potential to reduce flood risk from storm surge and sea level rise. This paper examines how the FRT can enhance climate resilience for both marine ecosystems and communities in Southeast Florida amidst climate change. My analyses find that coral reefs have significant wave attenuation potential only if structural complexity and carbonate accretion are high. I also find that coral reefs can reduce climate injustices in disadvantaged communities by reducing flooding from rising seas and greater storm surge. However, policies are needed to avoid climate gentrification in protected neighborhoods. I conclude that the five biggest impacts and threats to the FRT are climate change, loss of coral biodiversity, coral disease, pollution, and direct human activities such as dredging and fish trapping. Swift climate action and stringent policy are necessary to protect and sustain the benefits provided by the FRT. This includes quickly reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero, increasing restoration efforts, updating local sewage infrastructure to reduce pollution runoff, and implementing legislation that further promotes the protection of coral reefs.