Love Plants? Consider Mangroves!

Coastline-hugging forests provide 5 good reasons for our affection this Valentine’s Day

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Love Plants? Consider Mangroves!
Mangroves in New Caledonia form a heart shape, perhaps a reminder from nature that these coastal plants deserve our attention.
Frederic Desmoulins Getty Images

You’ve probably never received a Valentine’s Day card that reads “Roses are red, mangroves are green, and most of their benefits remain unseen.”

But if you ever did, now might be the time. Because if love is in the air this time of year, it’s worth remembering that our air is breathable because of the work of photosynthesizing plants. And one group in particular is a veritable workhorse of the living kingdom: Mangroves.

These collections of plants—standing over half a meter high and growing above the average sea level in intertidal zones—absolutely thrive in coastal marine environments and saltwater conditions, where oceans meet the land.

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ project dedicated to protecting coastal wetlands and coral reefs supports countries’ efforts to safeguard and restore mangroves and other coastal wetlands, such as salt marshes and seagrasses, as part of each country’s nationally determined contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement, the landmark international climate change treaty that came out of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference.

From sheltering coastal communities during storms to providing nursery grounds for important fish stocks, there’s certainly a lot to love about mangroves. Here are five reasons why mangroves deserve our support.

1. Mangrove forests protect coastal communities from floods and storms.

Mangrove forests form dense physical barriers, thanks to the trees’ root structures and trunks, in the intertidal zone, reducing the energy and size of incoming waves and thus helping protect communities from storm surges.

Studies conducted following tsunamis and major storm events in the Indian Ocean showed that inland communities buffered by dense mangrove forests were less damaged by tsunami destruction than those without these forests. In one case, researchers found that adding about one-fifth of an acre of mangrove forest could reduce the area flooded by a tsunami by 50%.

Coastal mangrove forests outline a turquoise lagoon in Zanzibar, Tanzania, and protect local communities from storm surges and waves.
Carlo Alberto Conti Getty Images

2. Mangroves protect coral reefs from sediment erosion.

The same tangled dense root systems that protect inland communities from coastal storm surges and flooding also help shield underwater marine life. Erosion of the land brings soil and sediment into the water, a process called sedimentation, and is a significant threat to coral reefs, which are made up of thousands of tiny animals called coral polyps living in colonies and that need clear water to grow. Coastal wetlands, like mangroves, trap sediments that could otherwise suffocate the reefs that live close to shores.

A coral reef lives below a mangrove forest in West Papua, Indonesia. Mangroves serve as sediment traps, protecting coral reefs from erosion.
Giordano Cipriani Getty Images

3. Mangroves store an immense amount of carbon, helping mitigate climate change.

Mangroves are a “blue carbon ecosystem”—a term that also includes salt marshes and seagrasses—because these coastal and marine environments store carbon in their branches, leaves, roots, and underlying soils. Mangroves and other blue carbon ecosystems are more efficient at storing carbon than forests on land; in fact, they can store three to five times more carbon in the same area of soil. And if mangroves are left undisturbed, this carbon can remain locked away for millennia, making mangroves an effective natural tool for mitigating climate change. When a mangrove forest is lost or degraded, on the other hand, the stored carbon is remobilized back into carbon dioxide and emitted into the atmosphere.

Belize, for its part, has committed to protecting mangroves as part of its national determined contribution to the Paris Agreement as a tool to fight climate change.

Researchers take samples from mangroves in the Central American country of Belize, which will help them estimate how much carbon is stored in their branches, leaves, and underlying soil.
Denvor Fairweather WWF

4. Mangroves are nursery grounds for many species.

Fish, shrimp, and other marine animals rely on mangroves as breeding grounds or nursery habitat where their young can live among protective dense roots and shallow waters. The juveniles can grow safely before they venture out to live in coral reefs or the open ocean.  Animals that grow to maturity within mangrove ecosystems are crucial to overall ocean health, keeping marine food webs in balance and providing resources for coastal communities.

Lemon sharks in Bimini, Bahamas, are just one of many species that use mangroves as nursery grounds.
Ken Kiefer Getty Images

5. People need mangroves.

Another beneficiary of these systems? People. Fishers depend on having the healthy nursery grounds where the fish can mature. Species like the rainbow parrotfish and goliath grouper both grow to large sizes in Caribbean mangrove forests and are a spectacle among recreational scuba divers who travel from around the world to see them.

A rainbow parrotfish swims around a coral reef in the Bahamas, a big draw for scuba divers in the Caribbean.
Kimberly Brotherman Getty Images

In addition, mangroves give local inhabitants a sense of identity, and provide educational opportunities that generations have learned through interacting with them. 

Because mangroves provide for people, animals, and the planet, policymakers should look to them as a tool in building coastal resilience and fighting climate change. And everyone should consider sharing their affection for mangroves not just on Valentine’s Day, but all year round.

Kate Meyer works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ protecting coastal wetlands and coral reefs project.

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