The Role of Mangroves in Sea Level Rise

Protecting mangroves in Everglades National Park is vital to battling sea level rise, a result of climate change.

Mangrove trees in the Florida Everglades

The mangrove tree is the best line of defense against climate-change induced sea level rise in Everglades National Park.

Photo By Stig Nygaard

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As we continue to observe the impacts of a changing climate, it should come as no surprise that the most vulnerable places to these changes are those where humankind has compromised a natural order. Case in point: Everglades National Park, where canals and levees dug for urban and agricultural development have disrupted the delicate balance of fresh water and saltwater. As Kevin Grange reports in National Parks (Fall 2012), sea levels in the region have risen eight inches over the last century, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicts they could rise as much as 24 more inches over the next 50 years, which would force saltwater into new areas of the Everglades. In addition to widespread destruction of wildlife habitat, the saltwater also threatens to taint the Biscayne Aquifer, which provides drinking water to 5 million people.

The good news is that there is already a simple but effective line of defense in place: the mangrove tree, which features a unique root system that filters pollution, slows erosion, and effectively builds a natural dike out of trapped sediment that helps buffer the inland fresh water from the advancing saltwater. “The park is one big scientific platform that really tells the climate-change story,” says Park Superintendent Dan Kimball.

Recognizing the vital role that the trees play, state and federal officials have made a $12.2 billion investment in the park that will help remove canals and levees disrupting the natural flow of water, and ensure that the largest stand of protected mangrove forest in the Northern Hemisphere can continue to do its job. If all goes well, the plan will stand as a case study in proactive response to climate change.