Of Mangroves and Climate Change

Mangroves in the Galapagos IslandsPhoto by Platours

Galapagos study with Global ramifications

Kristen Mastropole was making her way into the center of a thicket of mangroves in the Galapagos Islands. She was wearing a long sleeve field shirt and khaki pants. It was her eighth day in the mangroves and she had the scrapes and cuts and bruises to show it. “I’ve already counted 17 bruises on my legs,” she said.

Mastropole is a University of Miami student conducting the first detailed on-the-ground study of mangroves in the Galapagos. She and the university hope her work is the beginning of a long-term project that could stretch over many years.

Mangroves are clusters of spindly trees and shrubs that form dense, leafy green walls along salt water shorelines in much of the tropics and subtropics. They are breeding grounds for birds, shrimp, and fish. They prevent erosion and filter out pollution. Experts say a third of the world’s mangrove forests have been lost in the past 50 years. Some people use mangroves for firewood.  Historically, developers have chopped down mangroves to clear space for condos and resorts, but in some places, like Florida, it is illegal to damage them.

Mastropole’s work has global implications. Scientists have been debating the impact of global climate change on mangroves. Some scientists say climate change will hurt the mangroves. Others say it could be good for them. “There’s conflicting research,” Mastropole said.

One problem is that much of the world’s mangroves have not been charted.  Mastropole’s work is designed to deal with that.  She is setting out to establish a baseline for calculating the impact of global climate change on at least a small part of the world’s mangroves.

Part of the controversy focuses on increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and gradually rising sea levels – both related to climate change.  Scientists say increased carbon dioxide helps mangroves grow. But they say higher sea levels could drown them.

Mastropole is working closely with Martina Streuben. Both are graduate students at the University of Miami.  Mastropole is focusing on the survey of the mangroves. Streuben is doing a study of fish in the mangroves. In the field, they work as a team.

They work their way through the mangroves on their hands and knees. Vicious thorn bushes often block their path. They guide each other. “Try going left, and under those branches,” Mastropole said to Streuben one morning. And Streuben found a way through.

Mastropole is surveying the three types of Galapagos mangroves –white, black, and red–and determining how far inland each type grows strongest. She is measuring the diameter and height of the mangrove trees and the density of the mangrove forests.

Mastropole said the University of Miami is hoping to get grants to support the long-term study. Some high school students worked with Mastropole and Streuben and the two researchers say they hope there will be more Galapagos participation in the future.  They plan to compare their findings in the Galapagos with their research at the University of Miami’s field station on Broad Key in the upper Florida Keys.

In the Galapagos, Mastropole and Streuben have measured hundreds of mangrove trees.  Their last tree was number 400. After they recorded the data, they were ready to celebrate, “Where’s the champagne?” Streuben said.  Mastropole just smiled. #



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