Happy Earth Day! Today is an important day for annual awareness of environmental concerns and the global environmental movement. Here at Earthology, we have a love for maritime forests and their ecological importance.
Mangroves play a key role in maintaining a healthy Florida coastline ecosystem in conjunction with seagrass beds, salt marshes and coral reefs. There are three species of mangroves (red, black, and white) in Florida. Each species occupies a different area within the tidal zone based on tidal change, elevation, and water and soil salinity. Red mangroves are found along the seaward-most edge, and fully exposed to tidal fluctuation and winds. This species is well adapted to these conditions with prop roots extending from both the trunk and branches. Farther inland, the black mangrove has pneumatophores that extend upwards from the soils surrounding the trunk. The pneumatophores are used to supply oxygen to the underground roots that are often in an anaerobic substrate. White mangroves, which usually lack special root adaptations, occur in the interior-most section of the mangrove forest.
Mangroves perform a crucial function in stabilizing Florida’s coastline and ecosystem. Their dense and complex root systems bind and accumulate soils, and reduce water flow, all which aid in providing a natural infrastructure and protection to adjacent populated areas by preventing erosion and absorbing storm surge impacts during storms and hurricanes, making them one of the most important natural defense structures in coastal areas. In addition, the complex root system improves the water quality of the rivers and streams flowing into the estuary by filtering out phosphates, nitrates, and other pollutants before they reach the seagrass beds and coral reefs.
Mangrove ecosystems assist in decreasing the effects of climate change by removing large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere which are then stored in their carbon-rich soils. Mangrove habitat is sometimes referred to as a “carbon sink” because they remove more carbon than they release. This stored carbon which occurs in coastal habitats including salt marshes, mangroves and seagrass beds is referred to as coastal blue carbon. Because coastal blue carbon is stored in soil rather than in above-ground plants, mangroves remove and store carbon from the atmosphere at a greater rate compared to tropical forests. Blue carbon can be stored in these coastal habitat soils for hundreds, even thousands, of years.
Mangroves provide essential habitat for a wide array of wildlife including fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, invertebrates, and plants. Estuarine habitats are an important spawning and nursery area for many juvenile marine species including shrimp, crabs, oysters, and many fish species such as redfish, snook, snappers, jacks and tarpon, making their economic value in Florida’s recreational and commercial fisheries indispensable. Mangrove branches aid as roosting and nesting areas for a variety of coastal wading birds including egrets, herons, brown pelicans, cormorants, and roseate spoonbills. It has also been documented that federally listed species such as the smalltooth sawfish, American crocodile, West Indian manatee, hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, and Key deer rely on the mangrove habitat during some stage of their life cycle. And for any adventurous nature lovers, mangroves provide unique destinations for one to enjoy their natural surroundings for outdoor recreation like kayaking, paddle boarding, fishing, snorkeling, and hiking.
Unfortunately, mangrove forests are under constant threats due to dredging, filling, water pollution and human development; all of which can lead to erosion and habitat loss. When mangrove forests are damaged, cleared or destroyed, massive amounts of carbon dioxide stored in the soil are released into the atmosphere which contributes to climate change, and their capacity to absorb carbon is lost. This changing climate will result in stronger, more persistent storms and hurricanes, which is a direct danger to people living along coastal communities. Given the unique role that mangrove forests play in reducing the effects of climate change, it is vital that we remain committed to protecting them and other coastal habitats.
This Earth Day, make sure to appreciate your mangroves and all that they do. We at Earthology do!