Why Australia’s loss of 7,000 hectares of mangroves will have serious consequences

Dead mangrove forest off Australia's east coast, photo by James Cook University

Dead mangrove forest off Australia’s east coast, photo by James Cook University

Climate change has wrecked havoc not only on our weather patterns but on the world’s forest and ecological systems. And the impact is devastating.

In the U.S., severe drought and major insect infestations have been responsible for almost unimaginable die-offs of old growth forests. In Australia El Nino conditions have caused the die-off of a 7000 kilometer (approximately 4,349 miles) stretch of mangrove shoreline in the southern reaches of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Mangrove forests play a crucial part in helping create healthy ecosystems. Their presence helps stabilize coastlines, preventing erosion, They trap sediments and provide vital nurseries for fish, shrimp, crab, seagrass and corals. This makes mangrove forests pivotal for the protection of coastline from hurricanes and also for commercial fisheries.

By the end of the 20th century, less than 50 percent of the world’s mangrove forests were alive, and of these, a large percentage were in poor condition. Mangroves are perhaps the most threatened of habitats in the world. Many thousands of acres of mangrove forest have been destroyed to make way for rice paddies, rubber trees, palm oil plantations, and other forms of agriculture. With runoff from pesticides and fertilizers, mangroves toleration for pollution simply fails. And because mangroves are geared to tidal fluctuations, water diversions for irrigation or paved-over roads bring damage and destruction to these forests.

On Australia’s eastern shore – ranging from Kurumba in Queensland to the Roper River in the Northern Territory – severe drought has been the major contributing factor, said James Cook University Professor Dr. Norm Duke.

“It’s been so severe in many locations that the whole of the shoreline fringe of mangrove has been killed or at least defoliated,” he said.

What a healthy mangrove forest in Australia looks like, photo by Richard Taylor

What a healthy mangrove forest in Australia looks like, photo by Richard Taylor

With no rainy season to speak of last year, the die-off could be just the beginning of a larger and more serious chain of events with serious repercussions on other habitats.

“If it involves seagrass, then the implications extend much more broadly, you’re talking about turtles and dugongs,” said Duke, “but we don’t know for sure.There could be other repercussions on other habitats that we have even less of an idea of.”

Funding is a major factor to begin to understand the full scope of this disaster and any possibility of reversing it.

“At the end of the day,” Duke said, “it’s going to need a proper injection of funding to get to the bottom of what’s going on and to properly check the repercussions.”

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