Mangroves are one of the most biologically complex ecosystems on earth. They play a very important role in mankind’s well-being and on the health of our planet.
If you’ve traveled in the tropics or subtropical regions, you surely have noticed the peculiar group of trees growing along the shores, estuaries, or rivers. Those are called mangroves. Mangroves are trees and shrubs that grow on low-oxygen soil and salty conditions. They thrive even when they are flooded twice daily by ocean tides.
Mangroves are one of the most productive and highly valuable ecosystems. They provide innumerable benefits to humans and other living organisms. They’re also important to the environment itself. These salt-tolerant trees buffer against the ocean-borne storms and hurricanes. They stabilize the coastlines by reducing the impact of wind, waves, storm surges, and currents.
The roots of the sea
Because of its distinctive features, mangroves are sometimes referred to as the roots of the sea. They have a root system that is particularly their own. The roots may look weird, but its complex and dense structures are specifically designed by Nature for many reasons.
The trees’ aerial roots may take different forms. Some are wide with wavy planks that stretches farther from the trunk. While others are stilts that branch and loop off the trunk and lower branches. But whatever form they may take, the intricate root systems do multiple tasks - for the tree itself, for humans, and for other living organisms.
Amazingly, these roots perform several functions:
● They provide structural support to the tree for stability in the soft, loose soil.
● Provide oxygen to the tree for respiration. Oxygen goes into the mangrove through its lenticels. Lenticels are the tiny breathing pores found in the bark and roots of the tree. During high tides, these cell-sized pores close tightly, protecting the mangroves from drowning.
● Provide a refuge for many fish species and other organisms.
● Dissipate waves by drawing in its energy.
● Reduce the impact of severe weather conditions and control the flow of water. The roots are strong enough to act as shields against hurricanes, storm surges, wind, landslide, and erosion.
● Confine the sediments carried by the high tides and incoming currents.
● Help reclaim land from the sea and prevent the entry of sea water into farm lands.
● Stabilize the coastline and substrate.
● Buffer against uncontrolled shifting of the coastline sand.
● Protect the people living close to the shores.
● Keep properties and structures, like boats, buildings, and sea walls from damage.
Without the mangroves, hurricanes and typhoons may easily cause severe damage to the coastal areas. And the sediments can smother the coral reefs and seagrass meadows.
Other benefits the mangroves offer and threats to its survival
Mangrove forests are home to many species of fish, shrimp, mollusks, and crabs. In fact, different studies confirm that there are up to 25 times more fish on coral reefs located near the mangroves than in ridges where there are no mangroves around. Mangroves are also one of the sources of food and livelihood for many people.
Moreover, the mangrove wood is resistant to insects, fungi, and borer attacks. It does not rot, too, making it a suitable material for construction and furniture. The local communities use the woods for fuel and for some useful household items. And they harvest the tree leaves for medicine, and animal fodder.
Given its diversity, it’s not unusual for the mangrove forests to attract eco-tourists. Plus, their proximity to white sand beaches and coral reefs easily draw the attention of curious visitors. In fact, many mangroves worldwide have already been visited by scientists, students, divers, and snorkelers.
In recent years, mangrove forests are harvested for wood chip, pulp, and charcoal production. That’s why they now become one of the world’s most threatened tropical ecosystems. In fact, the decline in its number and quality is already at an alarming rate. Verified reports show that over 35% of the world’s mangroves have disappeared. The figure is even higher at 50% in the Asian countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, and India. While in the Americas, mangroves are being cleared at a faster rate than the tropical rainforests.
Having said all these, I hope to raise the awareness of people about the need to protect our mangrove forests. These ecosystems should not be sacrificed or abused for the sake of commercial advancement. And I’m not saying this for the present generation, but more importantly, for the next. Mangroves contribute much in slowing down global warming. They’re efficient at absorbing carbon, even more efficient than all the forests in the world.