Mangrove expansion and climatic warming may help ecosystems keep pace with sea level rise

August 29, 2018, British Ecological Society

Sea level rise and extreme weather events have become harsh realities for those living along the world's coasts. The record-breaking hurricanes of the past decade in the United States have led to staggering tolls on coastal infrastructure and communities, leading many local governments to consider the benefits of natural coastal barriers.

In a landmark study titled "Warming accelerates expansion and surface elevation gain in a subtropical wetland" a team of Villanova University biologists have documented that in the southeastern United States are responding positively to rising temperatures both in their growth and in their ability to build soil to keep pace with sea level rise.

Published August 29 in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Ecology, the study's results are a ray of sunshine in the forecast. Members of the research team included Glenn A. Coldren, J. Adam Langley, and Samantha Chapman, from Villanova University's Department of Biology, Villanova, PA and Ilka C. Feller of The Animal-Plant Interaction Lab, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, in Edgewater.

The Villanova research team's two-year experiment, funded by grants from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was performed at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) within the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (MINWR) on Merritt Island. The KSC was an ideal location to conduct the research being situated at the intersection of two wetland biomes, salt marshes and mangroves. The implications for the KSC are serious since coastal wetlands and sand dunes help protect NASA's $5.6 billion low-lying infrastructure against rising seas.

The large-scale warming experiment was conducted in place in the MINWR using large passive warming chambers to increase both marsh and mangrove ecosystem air temperatures. The Villanova researchers found that experimental warming both doubled plant height and accelerated the transition from marsh to mangrove.

Mangroves are woody trees with more complex roots than their grassy marsh plant counterparts. When subjected to temperatures similar to those that will occur in a warmer future, mangrove plots showed increased surface elevation which is a measure of the wetland's ability to build soil and keep pace with sea level rise.

"Our study provides some evidence that the ongoing reshuffling of species on earth's surface could allow for some adaptation to the same global changes that are causing them," says Chapman. "Conserving and restoring our coastal wetlands can help humans adapt to climate change."

With their unique structure and migration to higher latitudes caused by climate change, mangroves may help coasts keep pace with sea level rise and combat severe weather events like hurricanes. Expansion of these natural barriers in areas like the Kennedy Space Center may enhance the sustainability of coastal communities as they face accelerating sea-level rise in a warmer future.

"The study links the growth of individual plants, and particularly their roots, to the survival of an entire ecosystem. The long-term strength of the mangrove effects we identified may determine what the maps of our southeastern coastlines look like in the future," says Langley. "This mangrove effect could benefit coastal wetlands around the world."

"Our experiment highlights the impact multiple interacting aspects of climate change, such as warming and , can have on the outcome of species invasions resulting from climate change—and on the capacity of those communities to protect shorelines," concluded Coldren.

Explore further: New research shows protective value of mangroves for coastlines

More information: Journal of Ecology (2018). DOI: 10.1111/1365-2745.13049

Related Stories

Mangroves to mudflats and not back again

July 16, 2018

Over one-third of Earth's population lives with 100 km of a coastline and depend on the services that coastal ecosystems provide. With the intensity and impact of hurricanes expected to increase in the future, there is a ...

March of the mangroves good news for blue carbon storage

December 15, 2015

The carbon capture and storage capacity of wetland vegetation, known as blue carbon, makes coastal habitats some of the most carbon rich ecosystems on the planet. A new study, published in Global Change Biology by Australian ...

Recommended for you

Galactic center visualization delivers star power

March 21, 2019

Want to take a trip to the center of the Milky Way? Check out a new immersive, ultra-high-definition visualization. This 360-movie offers an unparalleled opportunity to look around the center of the galaxy, from the vantage ...

Physicists reveal why matter dominates universe

March 21, 2019

Physicists in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University have confirmed that matter and antimatter decay differently for elementary particles containing charmed quarks.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.