This map shows the geographic distribution of the Comparative Coastal Risk Index (CCRI) in Latin America and the Caribbean. Photo: Calil et al., 2017

More than 500,000 people living in coastal communities in Latin America and the Caribbean are at a high risk of being affected by hazards and natural disasters, according to a new study.

Citing the decimation the 2017 hurricane season caused coastal communities, researchers from the University of California, Santa Cruz and the University of Cantabria, Spain developed methods to analyze “hotspots” that are particularly vulnerable to future coastal disasters.

According to the team’s findings, published in PLOS ONE, some of the top hotspots include the coastal province of El Oro in Ecuador, the state of Sinaloa in Mexico, and the province of Usulutan in El Salvador.

The combination of poverty, poor infrastructure and exposure to the elements add up to a higher level of vulnerability for these areas, and others listed in the study.

The researchers analyzed 16 different variables to determine a specific community’s level of risk – including population size, value of assets in a community and the amount of valuable resources and infrastructure that would potentially be exposed to damage. The researchers input the data into a Comparative Coastal Risk Index to determine risk level.

The locations in Ecuador, Mexico and El Salvador received a maximum coastal risk index value of 5, according to the researchers.

Lead researcher of the study, Juliano Calil, first developed the methods to assess coastal risks as a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz. The methods were applied in previous studies focusing on Florida and California to not only assess risk, but also identify coastal areas with potential for remediation projects that could meet multiple objectives. The results of these studies were published in 2015 and 2017.

Calil and fellow researchers hope their latest findings will act as a call to policymakers to think more critically about where to apply resources and make sustainable improvements to prevent future damage.

"Risks reduction and coastal adaptation efforts should not focus exclusively on developing coastal defenses," Calil said. "They must also consider better policies related to urban development, zoning, agriculture and land conservation practices, as well as on improving socioeconomic conditions."

Philipsburg, Sint Maarten as seen on Sept. 8, 2017 after Hurrican Irma hit. Photo: Multiverse/Shutterstock