This study quantifies the effects of hurricane windstorms on economic activity using nightlight as a proxy at the highest spatial resolution data available (1 square kilometer). Using different widths of the mangrove belt, it measures levels of mangrove natural protection against the impact of hurricanes and studies the broader socioeconomic and environmental effects of this protection. In recent decades, hurricane frequency and intensity have increased in the Caribbean Basin. From 2000 to 2012, more than 100 hurricanes impacted lives, infrastructure, and economic activity along the region’s shorelines. Studies suggest that mangrove forests’ dense root systems might mitigate the impact of hurricanes, which would help stabilize the coastline and prevent erosion from waves and storms. Although many tropical mangroves are found on Caribbean coasts, climatic and anthropogenic events have been clearing these wetland ecosystems at an annual rate of 1 percent since the 1990s.
The results indicate that while major hurricanes reduce nightlight by approximately 2 percent and up to 16 percent in storm surge prone areas, the presence of mangroves on the coast mitigates the impact of hurricanes, reducing nightlight by 1–6 percent. Specifically, within the coastal lowlands, the impact of hurricanes declines with mangrove width and specifically, that the effect of hurricanes in the sample is mitigated by 0.25 kilometer or more of mangrove width. Finally, it is likely that the protective value of mangroves is underestimated in the long run because mangrove protection may include additional benefits—such as lives saved, health outcomes, and human capital accumulation—that are not well captured by nightlight data. Second, while climate change and the resulting intensification of storms may increase the value of conservation for protection purposes, it is vital that that decisions around areas designated for conservation or restoration consider the threat of sea level rise.