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Guest Commentary | The first line of defense in a natural disaster? Nature

By CARRIE SCHUMAN PhD. - Principal Climate Resilience Specialist at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida | Jun 28, 2024

Carrie Schuman, PhD.

Southwest Florida’s mangrove forests are a vibrant refuge for creatures of all shapes and sizes. Mangrove root systems provide sanctuary for species like fish and shellfish. Mangrove canopies serve as habitat for wildlife like insects and nesting coastal birds.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection estimates that 600,000 acres of mangrove forests contribute to the overall health of Southwest Florida’s coastal zones. Mangroves help maintain water quality and clarity and thrive in salty environments because they’re able to extract freshwater from saltwater sources.

As we enter the 2024 Atlantic hurricane season, it’s important to give credit where credit is due, and respect the impact that mangrove forests have along our coasts. Mangroves are a type of “nature-based solution” for adapting to severe weather events and longer-term impacts associated with a changing climate.

Mangroves absorb water and wind energy produced during hurricanes, which helps protect human communities including people’s homes and other important infrastructure. They slow water down and stabilize the ground, lessening coastal impacts like erosion and flooding. The amount of protection that mangroves provide for inland coastal areas can depend on characteristics such as mangrove height, density (how closely trees are growing near each other), and forest width. However, studies have estimated that more than half of incoming wave energy can be reduced in the first 300 feet of mangrove forest, suggesting even smaller systems can provide advantages.

While adaptable and tough, mangroves are not immune to the stressors, like storms and climate change, they are protecting us from. Mangroves do have some strategies for responding to impacts like sea level rise. They can build up sediment beneath their roots in the right conditions, or they can move further inland to escape deepening water.

But, the added effects of human activity like increased development in coastal areas and changes to natural water flow has ultimately contributed to major decline in mangrove forest. A recently released global mangrove assessment from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Ecosystems shows that 50% of the world’s mangrove systems are at risk of collapse.

It’s our job to protect these incredible trees so they can continue protecting us. This includes conserving pre-existing forest, allowing them room to migrate whenever possible, and supporting efforts to protect water quality and restore mangroves.

For more information, visit Conservancy.org.

Carrie Schuman, Ph.D., is the Principal Climate Resilience Specialist at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.