Restoring mangroves, our guardians from the storm

If you’ve ever been through a hurricane in Florida or in certain parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast, it’s possible that mangroves were the guardian angel you didn’t know you had.

This is a guest post by Jamie Friedman of Frontier Group. Photo from USDA Forest Service.

We’re in the midst of hurricane season here in Florida, and as we prepare for potentially the most active season ever, it’s clear that we’re going to need all the protection we can get. Luckily for us, there is a natural solution that both defends against storms and flooding and fights back against climate change: mangroves.

If you’ve ever been through a hurricane in Florida or in certain parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast, it’s possible that mangroves were the guardian angel you didn’t know you had. These incredible trees can be found on tropical and subtropical coasts in over 100 countries, including the U.S. They act as natural breakwaters, absorbing wave energy in their roots and reducing wave height by up to 66 percent, thereby protecting inland areas from the full force of a storm. And when they’re damaged in these storms they can heal themselves, unlike dams and other human-built flood-prevention infrastructure. During Hurricane Irma in 2017, mangroves in Florida protected half a million people and prevented an estimated $1.5 billion in flood damage, according to the Nature Conservancy. Each year they prevent about $11 billion in property damage for the U.S. alone and $65 billion worldwide.

Not only that, but mangrove forests absorb four times as much carbon as most other tropical forests, helping to reduce the negative impacts of climate change (such as increasingly severe storms) from happening in the first place. A recent study found that, globally, mangroves store 6.4 billion tons of carbon in the soil under their roots, which is over four times as much carbon as the U.S. economy emits each year.

Yet despite their remarkable qualities, mangroves have been destroyed as a result of coastal development, water pollution and climate change. We have lost 50 percent of the world’s mangroves over the past 50 years and continue to lose them at a rate of 1 percent per year. And remember that carbon stored by their roots? All that carbon gets released back into the atmosphere when mangroves are destroyed.

But there are reasons to hope that that loss of mangroves can not only be stopped, but reversed. The Global Mangrove Alliance, a group that includes The International Union for Conservation of Nature, The World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy, has set the ambitious new goal of increasing the global area of mangroves by 20 percent by 2030. Their initiative is one of many contributing to the UN Decade for Ecosystem Restoration, which will work to “prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide” from 2021 to 2030. As of now, the Global Mangrove Alliance has over 50 locations for mangrove restoration projects, including three in the U.S., all of which are in Florida.

The mangrove conservation movement is gaining momentum, with some countries turning to mangroves to help meet their Paris Climate Agreement pledges, according to a correspondence paper in the journal Current Biology. The support of the UN and other local and national efforts will serve to strengthen the movement and bring us one step closer to seeing widespread results.

When I told a friend in Florida that this year’s hurricane season was going to be the most active ever, they asked, “Don’t they say that every year?” It certainly seems that way — and that’s exactly the problem. Every year that we don’t take the necessary action against climate change we must face harsher predictions and harsher realities of more intense storms and destroyed ecosystems. But with many conservation and restoration initiatives already underway, and more to come as a result of global cooperation, there’s a chance that we can avoid the gloomiest predictions. It’s time to turn the tide by defending our ecosystems and committing to reforestation in every form, with the remarkable mangrove leading the way.