Mangrove Ecosystems and their Superpowers
In recognition of International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem, which is celebrated annually on July 26.
The Dominican Republic is blessed with some amazing mangroves. You can take boat trips or try out snorkelling to see them in all their glory.
But, mangroves aren’t just cool to look at. They have real eco superpowers. As plants that straddle the land/ocean border, mangroves play an important role in maintaining coastal and marine life. No wonder they’re nicknamed ‘roots of the sea’.
Researchers reckon they form one of the most useful ecosystems on Earth.
‘If there is a last line of defense against climate change, it may well lie in the mangrove trees that cling to coastlines throughout the tropics.’ – Aulani Wilhelm, VP of Oceans
Here are 5 things you need to know about these surprising super-trees:
1) Mangroves inhale carbon
Mangroves are the best carbon absorbers in the world. They store up to 10 times more carbon per hectare than forests on land.
The flip-side of that fact is that mangrove deforestation is even worse, as the trees release many times more carbon, too. Destroying one tree contributes far more emissions than a newly planted tree can take in, which is why protecting existing trees should be prioritised.
Mangrove ecosystems are key to fighting climate change.
2) Mangroves are Nature’s flood defenses
Mangroves play a crucial role in holding tropical coastlines in place. The forests protect coastal communities from storm surges, beach erosion, and rising sea levels.
The mangrove’s woody, complex structure dissipates the force of incoming waves, and can reduce wave height by up to 90%. Smaller waves means smaller chance of natural disaster devastation.
Their roots bind and build the soil, which builds up the coastline and buffers against rising sea levels.
The roots also filter water and trap sediment which might otherwise damage coral reef ecosystems.
Mangroves are pretty amazing.
3) Mangrove forests are home to a buzzing biodiversity
Mangroves provide a protected habitat for a huge range of land and marine life.
Many endangered species take shelter here, such as the hawksbill turtle and the Bengal tiger. Yes, tigers need mangroves.
Corals seek refuge in mangrove ecosystems from ocean acidification. A study even showed that corals that grew up in the shade of mangroves were more resistant to deadly bleaching. Coral is a super important species to protect.
Migrating birds rely on mangroves as stop-over points on their journey. Mangroves act as a nursery ground for many young fish and crustaceans.
Through the sediment trapping and filtration they perform, mangroves support nearby ecosystems and all their wildlife.
I’m sure you get the picture. Mangroves are relied upon heavily by a lot of wild creatures. Like a mother-of-four.
4) Mangroves are under threat
Mangrove forests are resilient. Tropical storms, constantly changing tides – they’ve gone through a lot. But, today, mangroves are under threat nearly everywhere because of human activity.
They are disappearing even faster than inland forests, but receive little media attention. We’ve lost 50% of the world’s mangroves in the last 50 years. In Myanmar, mangrove deforestation is occurring at four times the average global rate.
The main culprit: shrimp farming.
In countries like China, Thailand, and Indonesia, mangrove forests are cleared to make room for shrimp pens. These farms are temporary, but toxic biowaste makes the area uninhabitable once the pens are removed.
Some countries are trying to conserve their mangroves, but replanting efforts often lack specialised knowledge about which species to introduce to a region. After the 2013 typhoon in the Philippine, there was a big mangrove reforestation attempt but, sadly, many ill-fitting trees died.
Other threats to mangroves come from agriculture, tourism, overfishing, and changing sedimentation due to dams and irrigation systems.
At the current rate, mangroves will be gone by 2100.
For more information on the threat to mangroves and what is being done to save them, check out the work of the Global Mangrove Alliance and the Mangrove Action Project.
5) Mangroves are highly profitable for humans
Many people who live in coastal communities rely on mangrove ecosystems for their livelihood.
Mangroves contribute to food security by supporting fisheries, and producing other products like honey, algae, fruit, salt, and leaves for livestock feed.
The trees aid in water purification and detoxify waste. Their timber can be used in construction.
The trees also provide economic value in the coastal protection they provide. As part of a wider disaster prevention strategy, mangroves add millions of dollars’ worth of protection. They save money in reduced damages from flooding and saving lives.
Many would argue that we need mangroves to survive the threat of climate change. The continuation of human life on Earth would be a pretty significant contribution from the mangrove tree.
Mangrove Quick-fire Facts
The magical mangrove tree:
- Stores up to 10 times more carbon than terrestrial forests
- Has waxy, oval-shaped leaves that excrete salt
- Has aerial and salt-filtering roots
- Grows in 136 different countries on 4 continents
- Is found between the latitudes of 32º N and 38º S, along the coasts of Africa, Australia, Asia, and the Americas
- Ranges in size from small shrubs to 40m trees
- Has at least 70 species, maybe up to 110
- Covers over 150,000 sq km globally, an area slightly larger than Nepal
- Indonesia has the largest area of mangroves at 23,000 sq km, followed by Brazil, Australia, Nigeria, and Mexico