Mangroves crucial to SWFL ecosystem, protect shorelines and reduce carbon

Reporter: Stephanie Byrne
Published: Updated:
Mangroves on the Imperial River near homes in Bonita Springs. Credit: WINK News.

Mangroves are not only iconic to Southwest Florida’s coastal beauty but they’re also the first line of defense against sea level rise and storms.

FGCU’s The Water School researchers started studying these mangroves right after Hurricane Irma in 2017 to see how the area recovered after the storm.

Just in the last couple of weeks, they’ve returned to the site to see how it has changed since then.

Win Everham, Ph.D., is a professor of ecology and environmental studies. He said, “It’s wet, it’s muddy. The prop roots make it hard to move through there. There are spiders all the time.”

While the mangrove plot may be inhospitable for the unfamiliar, for Everham and Brian Bovard, Ph.D. this outdoor classroom is both beautiful and vital.

Bovard is the program coordinator and assistant professor with the Department of Ecology & Environmental Studies at FGCU.

He said, “We’re doing a long-term study of the mangroves to look at how they actually respond to things like rising sea levels, hurricane impacts, storm surge, things like that.”
This duo along with their students study how these mangroves grow and change over time.”

Everham went on to explain, “This is our first time in a really organized way of coming back in and resampling the whole plot to get a real sense of how the forest is growing back. Superficially, it looks great, you know that when you come out the day after a hurricane, it looks horrible and destructive, but it isn’t the first hurricane that these mangroves have seen. So they, they can re-sprout, they have babies underneath them that grow back.”

It’s the beauty in resilience that serves as a reminder of why it’s so important to protect these mangroves.

“They certainly have experienced hurricanes through evolutionary time,” he added, “They haven’t experienced human stressors through that time. So we’re altering the freshwater flow, we’re altering the tides in different places in our landscape. We’re introducing accidentally exotic species, we’re increasing the amount of chemical pollution that’s running off of our roads, all of those are additional stress to these critically important forests.”

The way they see it, the forests are crucial for our economy and well-being, because they’re not only serving as protection, as a physical barrier, they’re helping to offset the carbon emissions that we release into the atmosphere.

When they measure the mangroves, it’s not as simple as measuring the height.

Everham and Bovard use a special measuring tape to measure around it. This diameter tape tells researchers how thick the tree is, and in turn, by comparing to average tree size they can determine how much carbon is coming in.

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