Unlocking the mysterious mangroves

These mangled tropical wetlands are the unsung hero in the fight against climate change

Mangroves may not be the most verdant trees in the forest, but they pack a very important punch when it comes to environmental stability. One of their main attributes is protecting coastal areas from storm surge.

On this week’s TechKnow, Phil Torres and the TechKnow team journey into the jungles of Punta Galeta, Panama to uncover the importance of a complex ecosystem underneath the dense mangrove roots. Torres along with University of California, Berkeley Professor Wayne Sousa and his team of research assistants give these trees a health check on the heels of some deforestation in an important research area for Sousa.

University of California, Berkeley professor Wayne Sousa

TechKnow: What should we be worried about with mangrove forests in Panama?

Wayne Sousa: One of my sites was overnight cut down.

So decades of research were lost?

Yes, both an experiment and where I am just monitoring things over time. It was pretty devastating.  You get so used to these forests. You know every tree. You know every place to step and then suddenly the world is kind of turned upside down, and all your points of orientation are gone. It was very upsetting actually.

Why study mangroves?

Mangroves are the wetland of the tropics. They used to dominate about 75 percent of tropical coastlines. They’ve been severely damaged and removed by coastal development particularly by aquaculture. It is common in the Pacific so (construction crews will) clear these areas, create large ponds, and grow shrimp in them.  (It’s a ) very booming business in South East Asia. Once those forests are cut and removed and then filled with shallow water for shrimp, they are gone.

Sousa leading Phil Torres through the mangrove thicket.

Mangroves are disappearing, but why do we need them?

They provide a lot of ecosystem services. They protect against storm surge and the tsunamis in South East Asia. It’s well demonstrated from previous aerial photographs that areas that had intact forests received much less damage from wave surge. (Mangroves) are also nursery grounds for a lot of important commercial species including shrimp and small fish. (Fish will) live in mangrove’s complex network of roots, protected from predators in their early stages and then as they mature, they move offshore.  A lot of our shrimp fisheries, the natural ones and not the aquaculture ones, are dependent upon these. It turns out at that (mangroves) store lots of carbon. The ground (in a mangrove forest) is just completely full of roots so all that below ground carbon and the peat that develops from the dying root is a huge store of carbon that is not being released into the atmosphere.

Sousa, Phil Torres, and research assistants taking samples.

Why is that important?

Global warming is tied to increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the Greenhouse Effect.  By keeping the carbon in the soil and (continuing) to grow healthy productive forests, we can prevent that from getting out.

Basically, mangroves act as a sponge to all those CO2s humans are releasing?

That’s right, a very important (carbon) sink and it’s just been recognized within the last decade.  They store more carbon per unit area than any other habitat on Earth, more than rainforests and the others.  The fact that they are being cleared (results in) all that carbon releasing into the atmosphere.

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