To commemorate International Mangrove Day (July 26th) let’s take a moment to think about why these wonderful tropical ecosystems are unique and worthy of our protection.
Mangroves are formed by trees that are highly tolerant to salt and that grow in an amphibian environment, with aquatic and terrestrial characteristics. Here are five of their superpowers.
1. Reducing CO2
Mangroves have a great capacity to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They sequester carbon more efficiently and faster (up to 100 times faster) than terrestrial forests. According to experts, mangroves around the globe capture and store 34 million tons of carbon annually. A great contribution to the fight against climate change!
2. Fostering biodiversity
Mangroves serve as a habitat in all their extension. Numerous types of fish, crabs, shrimp and mollusks inhabit their roots. Mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds also find a favorable habitat here, including tigers, crocodiles, monkeys and manatees. Some of the species that live there are endangered, such as the American crocodile found in the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Moreover, mangroves provide a nursing site for several species of fish and crustaceans from nearby coral reefs, and offer them shelter during the early stages of their life.
3. Protecting the coasts
Mangroves are located in coastal areas and act as a protective barrier between water and land, preventing coastal erosion and reducing the effect of waves and tides, particularly during extreme weather events. They act as a powerful shield against storms, hurricanes and tsunamis. Hence, it is said that mangroves not only help prevent climate change by sequestering carbon, but also protect the coasts, their ecosystems and their inhabitants from its effects.
4. Providing sustenance
Currently, almost 60% of the world’s population lives in coastal cities and settlements and many communities depend on the resources and food provided by mangroves for their livelihood. For example, the Sundarbands mangroves (the world’s largest and a UNESCO world heritage site and biosphere reserve), located on the border between Bangladesh and India, are a means of support for the fishing communities in the area. Almost 3.2 million people directly depend on the food and resources provided by this ecosystem, such as timber, medicines and fertile land for agricultural production.
5. Contributing to biotechnology
In recent years scientists have been studying the possibility of transferring genes taken from mangrove species —given their tolerance to salinity— to certain foods, such as rice, to develop new crop varieties that can also be salt-tolerant. This will create new opportunities for farmers located in coastal areas and will be especially important in tackling the global problem of food security and the effects of climate change, which lead to sea level rise and consequent saline intrusion into coastal lands and aquifers.
Despite their superpowers, mangroves are very delicate. To survive, they require a balanced environment, with the right concentration of fresh and salt water. Sadly, we have already lost over 35% of the world’s mangroves and the number keeps increasing. Climate change and rising sea levels associated with it have caused a saline imbalance in the mangrove habitat that makes survival difficult. In addition, deforestation due to the expansion of cities and the need for more land for agricultural crops have had a negative impact on these ecosystems. To top it all off, there is also man-made pollution and overexploitation of resources. All of these represent a threat to mangroves, one of the most diverse and productive ecosystems of the world, and given all the benefits they offer, the importance of protecting them should not be put into question.