Study shows wetlands reduce storm impact

Cyclone Debbie slammed into Queensland's tropical north in March 2017.
Cyclone Debbie slammed into Queensland's tropical north in March 2017.

Tropical wetlands provide storm protection that saves thousands of lives and more than $600 billion each year, an Australian-linked world first study has found.

"It's vitally important because around the world the area covered by wetlands is reducing and as we keep destroying our wetlands, we are putting more and more people at risk," Dr Diane Jarvis from James Cook University told AAP.

She was part of a team of 12 scientists that has examined more than 1000 hurricanes and cyclones responsible for deaths or damaged property since 1902.

An average cyclone season in Australia's north sees about 11 tropical systems eventuate, four of which cross the coast.

Queensland continues to pour recovery money into areas devastated by Tropical Cyclone Debbie, with $6 million most recently allocated by government to rebuild an entertainment centre at Proserpine.

Fourteen people died and about 2300 homes were damaged as the second most expensive cyclone in Australia's history behind Darwin's Tracy in 1974, smashed into the Whitsunday region in March 2017, sporting 260km/h winds.

Total losses reached almost $1.8 billion, with 75,000 insurance claims lodged.

Queenslanders also received a battering from cyclones Nathan and Marcia in 2015.

Dr Jarvis and her colleagues additionally looked at land use data for 71 countries that showed any wetlands in the path of storms.

These included mangroves, estuaries, swamps and mudflats, which she says absorb the energy of extreme storms in ways open water and solid land can't.

Dr Jarvis says the results show wetlands offer significant protection by reducing the speed and turbulence of extreme storms and providing natural barriers when storm surges hit.

"When a storm makes landfall, if it crosses a wetland that absorbs some of the force of the storm," she said.

While there have been similar studies in Australia, the US and China, it's the first time scientists have proved the protective properties of wetlands globally.

The researchers found the 40 million Ha of wetlands in storm prone areas globally protect about 4620 lives annually and prevent damage worth $603 billion.

About half of all wetlands globally have been destroyed since the year 1900, according to Dr Jarvis.

About 700 million people live at less than 10 metres above sea level, while the effects of climate change include a predicted increase in the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones.

The paper has been published in the journal Global Environmental Change.

Australian Associated Press