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Mangrove expansion and climate warming can help ecosystems to keep pace with sea level rise

Sea water raising and extreme weather events have become difficult realities for those living along the coast of the world. The record breaking hurricanes in the last 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 milestone study entitled "Heating accelerates mangrove expansion and elevation gains in a subtropical wetland", a team of biologists from Villanova University has documented that coastal wetlands in the southeastern US respond positively to rising temperatures, both in their growth and in their ability to build land to keep pace with sea level.

Published August 29 in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Ecology the study result is a solar beam in climate change. Members of the research team included Glenn A. Coldren, J. Adam Langley and Samantha Chapman, from Villanova University's Biological Institute, Villanova, PA and Ilka C. Feller, Animal Exchange, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Edgewater.

The Villanova's two-year experiment, funded with contributions from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was conducted at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (MINRR) on Merritt Island. KSC was an ideal location for research to be at the intersection of two wet-biosomes, salt ponds and mangroves. The consequences for the KSC are serious, as coastal wetlands and dunes help protect NASA's low-link infrastructure against rising $ 5.6 billion.

The extensive heating experiment was conducted in place in MINWR with large passive heat chambers to increase both marsh and mangrove ecosystem air temperatures. Villanova's researchers found that experimental warming both doubled the height of the plant and accelerated the transition from marsh to mangrove.

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

"Our study provides some evidence that the ongoing redistribution of species on Earth's surface can allow some adaptation to the same global changes that cause them," says Chapman. "Preservation and restoration of our coastal wetlands can help people adapt to climate change. "

With its unique structure and migration to higher latitudes caused by climate change, mangroves can help coasts to keep pace with sea level rise and combat severe weather events like hurricanes. The expansion of these natural barriers in areas such as the Kennedy Space Center can increase the sustainability of coastal communities , because they face an accelerating increase in sea levels in a warmer future.

"The study links the growth of individual plants and, in particular, their roots, to the survival of an entire ecosystem. The long-term strength of the mangrove effects we identified can determine what the maps on our southeast coasts look like in the future, Langley says. "This mangrove effect can favor coastal wetlands around the world."

"Our experiment highlights the impact of several interactive aspects of climate change, such as warming and sea level rise, can bring the outcome of species invasions caused by climate change and the capacity of these communities to protect shoreline," concluded Coldren.

Explore further:
New research shows the protection value of mangroves for the coast

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

Journal Reference:
Journal of Ecology

Provided by:
British Ecological Society

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