What I’m learning about mangrove forests

Pretty mangrove stock photo

Photo by Maxwell Ridgeway on Unsplash

I’ve been wanting to write about my new research topic for a while, but it turns out it’s surprisingly hard! I didn’t want to just rehash Wikipedia. Anyway, today I want to give it a try. So dear reader, please let me introduce you to the wonderful world of mangrove forest research.

Coastal vegetation fascinates me. It’s weird. How can plants survive in such a rough environment? It’s salty, you’re flooded twice a day and on top of that you have to deal with waves bumping in to you all the time. And let’s not even get started on the sediment that you’re rooted in: if you’ve got bad luck you might just get washed away.

Yet somehow coastal plants of all shapes and sizes have managed to adapt, and actually thrive, in these environments. And what’s more, they protect coasts in the process. Because of their structures, they can reduce the energy of the waves crashing into them – and their roots can catch sediment and trap it there.

Mangrove forests are such dependable coastal ecosystems. There’s just two issues with them (not with the mangroves themselves, they’re pretty cool): we don’t know how well these forests protect our coasts exactly, because forest cover is variable and tends to change over time. But if you’re going to use a mangrove forest to protect a coast, you’d like to know how much it will protect you exactly, right? And how much it will protect you 5, 10, 20 years from now – especially now that the climate is changing, sea levels rising and storminess increasing.

The second issue is this: mangroves are disappearing at rates higher than tropical rainforests and restoration projects are not as successful as we’d like them to be. A great deal of these projects involve planting nursery-raised seedlings. If these seedlings are placed too low in the intertidal zone they drown or can’t handle the wave impact and get washed away. These thresholds are known for some species, but there is much more to be learned.

How can we help seedlings to establish and flourish into mature, coast-protecting trees? What causes mature trees to break or die? How much forest is left to protect you after a big storm? That’s what my research it all about. In the next three years and a bit, I hope to add a bit of new understanding to what drives all these changes in mangrove cover. Hopefully I can pull it off. Look forward to a big thesis in 3.5 years ;)

Some references
Koch et al. (2009) Non-Linearity in Ecosystem Services: Temporal and Spatial Variability in Coastal Protection. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment

Narayan et al. (2016) The effectiveness, costs and coastal protection benefits of natural and nature-based defences. PLoS ONE

Kodikara et al. (2017) Have mangrove restoration projects worked? An in-depth study in Sri Lanka. Restoration Ecology

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