In the aftermath of 2004's cataclysmic tsunami in Thailand and Indonesia, Dr. Greg Stone of the New England Aquarium co-led an expedition to survey the damage caused to the coral reefs there. The expedition’s results indicate a quick recovery for most of the reefs affected by last year’s tsunami, as reported in a technical report (pdf, 6.4mb) and in December 2005's issue of National Geographic.

Invaluable for their biological diversity, these affected coral reefs are critical for millions of people in that region as locally caught fish are a primary source of protein in their diet. The coral reefs there are also among the most extensive and beautiful in the world and are the economic center of a very large dive international tourism business.

An international team of eight scientist-divers, led by Dr. Greg Stone of Boston and Dr. Gerald Allen of Australia, traveled to the coast of Thailand approximately three and a half months after the tsunami struck in order to rapidly assess the extent and degree of damage to reefs. Of the reefs assessed, 36 percent showed very little to no damage, while 50 percent showed a moderate amount of tsunami-related damage. Only 14 percent of the surveyed reefs had suffered severe damage.

The team discovered that the damage to reefs varied with water depth and local geography. The tsunami posed little threat to deep-water reefs in the open ocean, where its fast-moving waves were only a few feet tall. The most damage was suffered in large, shallow bays, which amplified the strength of the tsunami’s waves. Coastal development often worsened the damage. In addition to the force of the waves, reefs near developed areas were also pounded by debris, including refrigerators, cars, roofs and much more.

Most of the region’s reefs are expected to recover quickly, re-creating the vibrant and diverse habitats typical of the region. Damaged coral formations can continue to grow, and even dead reefs may, in time, be recolonized by coral larvae. The scientific team concluded that one time devastation of the tsunami was less of a long term threat to the coral reefs than ongoing human-caused damage such as overfishing, poorly planned coastal development and global warming.