Firsthand fieldwork: Getting mangroves into coastal models for better climate prediction

ORNL's Ben Sulman and Shannon Jones traveled this summer to Port Aransas, Texas, where black mangroves are experiencing a rebirth after being devastated by an extreme freeze in 2021. Mangroves, which thrive in salty, brackish water, defend from storm surge and provide important habitat for fish, reptiles and birds. They support the fishing industry, remove carbon from the atmosphere and could expand along U.S. Gulf coasts as the climate warms.

Mangroves and other coastal processes affecting the carbon and nitrogen cycles are underrepresented in current Earth-scale land system models. By observing the collection of data along the Texas coast, Sulman and Jones gained a better understanding of the conditions and dynamics needed to improve large-scale Earth simulations that can better predict and help prepare coastal communities for flooding and other climate-related risks.

Jones is a postdoctoral researcher with a background in hydrology and flood modeling. She is working with Sulman on representing biogeochemical processes in coastal wetland models to better predict ecosystem responses to , human activity and sea level rise. The work is part of a Department of Energy Early Career Research Program award led by Sulman.

Jones' goal is to assess changes in carbon and nitrogen cycling in these ecosystems in DOE's Exascale Earth System, or E3SM, land model, known as ELM, with a focus on the effects of mangrove expansion into salt marsh areas.

Measuring gas exchange over a dead mangrove (left) and a live one (right). Credit: Ben Sulman/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Launching from the dock with our collaborators and the equipment. Credit: Shannon Jones/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

ORNL’s Ben Sulman and Shannon Jones at a mangrove habitat in Port Aransas, Texas, where scientists are gaining a better understanding of how this plant species may survive climate change. Credit: Ben Sulman/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Taking porewater measurements in the sediment within the mangrove habitat. Credit: Shannon Jones/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy