Tropical tree hailed as ‘powerful tool’ to save millions of lives

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Mangroves, a tree commonly found in tropical coastal backwaters, could play a major role in tackling rising sea levels, researchers of a breakthrough study told In a major discovery, scientists from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) have found that mangrove trees could significantly improve coastal defences. The study showed that mangroves – which are shrubs or trees that grow in coastal salt water, are effective at reducing the water level during extreme events such as heavy storms or typhoons. This could be key to saving millions of lives as climate change-induced rising sea levels and extreme weather increasingly threaten coastal communities around the world. 

For this study, the research was conducted across the Pearl River Delta in the South China Sea which is home to several Chinese “mega-cities” such as Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou.

These bustling cities are places that have high economic activity and importance globally and are densely populated, with Hong Kong having 7.4 million people, Shenzhen having 12.6 million, and Guanzhou having 15.3 million.

To contrast, London, which is also on a major river, has a population of nearly 9 million. Historically, areas close to rivers or the coast have been among the most heavily populated regions in the world, which now makes them vulnerable to climate change. 

Speaking to, Dr Michela De Dominicis, Senior Research Scientist in the Marine System Modelling Group at the National Oceanography Centre and lead author on the study, said that it was difficult to say how impactful this study would be on coastal communities around the world because many more city-specific studies would be needed first. 

She said: “However, mangroves already naturally serve as the first line of defence against flooding and erosion and if existing mangroves were lost 15 million more people would be flooded annually across the world.”

In a statement, she added: “This is an important new study that helps in planning out effective nature-based coastal defences. Mangroves are a vital natural resource at our disposal to protect communities.

“Even if mangroves on their own do not fully block water flow, they can reduce the extent of the flooding or they can be combined with traditional flood defences such as seawalls and levees, allowing for lower structures.”

Mangroves are key to providing coastal protection in the tropical, subtropical, and warm-temperate world. While mangroves are not present in the UK, the researchers noted that other natural habitats, for example saltmarshes, could provide similar coastal protection benefits, but they are still poorly studied.

Dr De Dominicis continued: “In the UK and in Europe, there has been a lot of research and work devoted to protecting the coast from flooding and erosion.

“That was in large parts kick-started by the 1953 storm surge event which devastated the UK and European countries along the southern North Sea.

“The traditional approach is to maintain hard engineered structures at the coast (seawalls, gabions, breakwaters, groynes), commonly called the ‘grey’ defences.

“These are extensively used across the UK and maintaining/upgrading them in all locations currently planned might become very expensive in the future.”

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She noted that natural based coastal or “green defences” offer a possibly cheaper alternative to protecting coastal. While mangroves can be included in such schemes, but do not occur in the UK.

She said that other “natural habitats can be used in the UK and there are already examples where we work with nature to protect the coast like the restoration of coastal habitats (for example salt marshes) and sand nourishments.”

Given that sea level rise and the increase in frequency of severe storms are a consequence of global warming, she added that the “first thing developed countries can do is to mitigate the effects of human induced climate change, by cutting their green-house-gases emissions, i.e. stopping burning fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas) to produce energy.

“This can help in the first place to reduce the amount of sea level rise we will get and the number of severe storms. However, sea level rise is happening already and coastal flooding will be increasing over the next century.

“Protecting coastal communities by using ‘green’ defences can help not only to protect against inundation, but also they can deliver additional benefits, such as increasing biodiversity, sequestering carbon.”

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