Governments around the world that are seeking to fight climate change while providing other significant benefits to ecosystems and coastal communities should consider protecting and restoring mangrove forests. Like seagrasses and salt marshes, mangroves are coastal wetlands that serve as nursery and feeding grounds for a broad range of species, storm buffers for communities, and highly efficient carbon sinks—a big draw for countries looking to implement nature-based climate action.
Yet, despite the numerous benefits that mangroves provide, they are some of the most threatened ecosystems on Earth. Experts estimate that half of the world’s mangroves have been lost in the past 50 years because of habitat destruction, coastal development, and pollution.
July 26 marks the International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem—an ideal time to share these six facts on why mangroves merit protection.
1. Mangroves can store three to five times more carbon in the same area of soil compared with other types of forests.
In fact, a healthy mangrove forest can sequester an estimated 2,016 pounds of carbon per acre per year.
2. Mangrove forests can keep carbon deposits locked away in soil for millennia.
The wet, low-oxygen conditions of tidally influenced and submerged soils characteristic of mangrove forests slow the decay of plant and other organic material. When the plants die or shed old leaves or roots, the carbon in that decaying organic matter becomes locked in the soil. Healthy mangrove forests can store that carbon for millennia, providing a natural way to prevent it from being released into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change.
3. Mangroves offer coastal communities a natural defense against the full impacts of storms.
A study published in 2020 in the journal Scientific Reports found that mangroves provide USD$65 billion in flood defense globally. The roots of mangrove trees stabilize coastal soils, reducing erosion and flood levels during storms, while forests buffer shorelines from the full impact of waves.
4. Mangroves are not a single species but a group of plant species that share similar characteristics. Many of those species aren’t even genetically related to each other.
Mangroves range from shrubs to trees—and vary in height from 3 meters (10 feet) to 40 meters (131 feet) or higher. Regardless of their species, all mangroves within a forest share common characteristics, such as their ability to thrive in a wet, salty environment.
5. Mangroves are home to a wide range of wildlife species from turtles and fish to birds and sharks—and even tigers!
It’s little surprise that mangroves are teeming with life: These forests are ideal nursery grounds for many marine fish, including grouper, snapper, and some shark species, as well as invertebrates that find food and shelter among the submerged roots. Vast numbers of fish, mollusks, clams, oysters, crabs, birds, and other animals make their homes amid mangroves, creating an ecosystem abundant with food for animals as well as humans.
6. Mangroves are tailor-made to flourish in changing salty coastal environments, with some species capable of removing excess salt through their leaves in order to survive.
Some species are even capable of excreting excess salt through their leaves! Mangroves’ unique biology enables them to thrive in a wide variety of conditions that most other trees would find toxic. Their ability to tolerate both high and fluctuating salinity and take root in salty, low-oxygen soils makes them ideally suited for the ever-changing coastal environment.
Like all coastal wetlands, mangroves offer policymakers a chance to safeguard vital—and economically important—ecosystems while helping people. That’s a fact worth remembering on the International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem—and every day.
Stacy Baez works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ protecting coastal wetlands and coral reefs project.