Mangroves forests have evolved to thrive in flooded coastal areas; several species have adapted to freshwater to brackish to saline water conditions over hundreds of years. Though these conditions would make life impossible for many other plants in Baja’s coastal waters, mangroves have discovered how to prosper and create incredible ecosystems.
What Are Mangrove Forests?
Mangroves are a group of trees that live in the coastal intertidal zone. These mangroves form forests that grow mainly at tropical and subtropical latitudes near the equator because they cannot withstand freezing temperatures. Mangrove forests thrive in areas with low-oxygen soil, where slow-moving waters allow fine sediments to accumulate. They are often recognized by their dense tangle of prop roots that make the trees appear to be standing on stilts above the water.
The Baja California peninsula is home to 700,000 hectares (over 1.7 million acres) of mangroves, which is 5% of the world’s total mangrove population. What’s more, researchers have found that these coastal trees are more efficient than their tropical counterparts, storing 5 times more carbon below ground. As a unique natural resource, mangroves offer coastal protection against unpredictable weather, food and shelter for various animal species, and carbon sequestration.
The value of Baja’s mangroves is so great that estimates suggest they contribute $70 billion to the Mexican economy each year. Yet, despite all this, the country’s mangrove forests are shrinking.
The Benefits of Mangrove Forests
The advantages of mangrove forests have been thoroughly researched by environmental scientists, who discovered that keeping more mangroves intact allowed them to avoid the release of around 13 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. That’s equivalent to removing 344,000 cars from the road each year.
The primary benefit of mangrove forests is their ability to act as effective carbon stores. Mangrove soils are rich in carbon, which the tree itself absorbs, reducing the planet’s exposure to dangerous gasses. Additionally, many fisheries rely on mangroves as breeding grounds.
In some circumstances, a mangrove forest ecosystem can even act as a natural source of defense for the local coastline, reducing erosion, limiting the impact of storm surges, and attenuating waves. In the long-term, scientists believe that mangroves could help to maintain elevation for land masses in the face of rising sea levels.
The Threats Facing Mangrove Forests
Despite the value of Baja’s mangroves, Mexico continues to have one of the highest rates of mangrove deforestation in the world. Studies suggest that a quarter of a century from now, half of all Mexico’s mangroves will be gone.
More than 35% of the world’s mangroves has already disappeared due to a range of threats that include, but aren’t limited to:
- Agricultural clearing practices: People who don’t understand the value of mangrove forest ecosystems have contributed to their clearing in exchange for new agricultural land, shrimp farms, and salt farms.
- Overharvesting: The strong and durable nature of mangrove wood makes it an appealing material. The rate of harvesting today is becoming unsustainable, with mangroves in some areas facing extinction.
- Environmental changes: Building irrigation solutions and dams has led to changes in the amount of salt water reaching mangrove forests. Like most plants, mangroves require a specific habitat to thrive.
- Pollution: The ongoing threat of pollution from fertilizers, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals carried by river systems can smother mangrove roots and kill the animals living within their delicate ecosystems.
- Climate change: For sustainable survival, mangrove forests require stable sea levels. They are very sensitive to the impact of climate change and global warming, which are causing higher water levels.
The Dangers of Mangrove Deforestation
The destruction of mangrove forests doesn’t just present a danger to the creatures that thrive within their ecosystems. Since mangroves store thousands of years of carbon dioxide beneath the soil, the destruction of these forests can release huge amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. According to recent findings, while mangroves only make up 0.6% of global tropical forests, their deforestation is responsible for as much as 12% of greenhouse gas emissions.
One study found that mangroves in Baja have continued to grow over undecomposed root structures to adapt to rising sea levels. This process of survival has contributed to layers of peat that are more than 2,000 years old and filled with carbon deposits. As a result, the mangroves that account for around 1% of the arid northwest in Mexico store about 28% of the nation’s carbon.
At ICF, we’re fighting back against the deforestation of mangroves and contributing to the maintenance of an ecosystem that protects various forms of life. ICF has been funding research projects in the Galapagos Islands and in the Gulf of California, Mexico to learn more about local mangrove stands.
Contact ICF today and speak to our team about how you can help us save the mangrove forests and protect this precious ecosystem.