How WWF is preparing mangroves for a new climate future

forest of mangroves on beach in Colombia

A warming climate is changing our world. While we can’t turn back time, we can make life on Earth as resilient to change as possible. One solution already exists: Mangrove forests are powerful ecosystems that can help us mitigate and adapt to climate change. However, climate change is negatively impacting mangroves, and conservationists need to use improved, climate-informed management to give these coastal forests the best chance to thrive into the future. To support such management, WWF and partners at the University of Queensland, Australia have developed a new method, known as the “Climate-Smart Mangrove Tool,” to help experts make the best decisions for people and nature’s long-term survival in a changing climate.

Mangrove trees are found on five of seven continents. While they are incredibly adaptable, they’re not immune to climate-related stress. “Mangroves grow along coastlines, meaning they’re at risk under a changing climate,” explains Dominic Andradi-Brown, lead marine conservation Scientist at WWF and one of the leads in the tool’s development. “More storms with stronger winds, causing higher waves and deeper and longer-lasting floods, can kill or weaken mangroves.”

This is bad news not only for these coastal forests and nearby communities that benefit from them but also for our efforts to slow down climate change. Mangrove trees store tons of carbon—three to four times more than other tropical rainforests and when the forests are damaged or destroyed, we lose a valuable nature-based solution.

Participants in a Climate-Smart Mangroves Tool training

The tool helps identify the diverse needs of mangrove systems around the globe

That’s where the Climate-Smart Mangrove Tool comes into play. The tool helps conservation practitioners better understand the risks of climate change to mangrove ecosystems. It also helps determine the best preventative and restorative management actions to decrease the vulnerability of these ecosystems to climate-related damage and increase their resilience to change. Its user-led decision-making design is critical because the diversity of mangroves means that there is no one-size-fits-all global solution. Management actions for forests along Madagascar’s northwest coast don’t necessarily fit with actions needed in the Pacific islands of Fiji.

“Mangroves play an increasingly critical role as a nature-based solution to protect people and infrastructure from worsening climate extremes, but for them to play that role, they have to survive climate change themselves, so this tool is critical in helping conservationists identify and address specific climate risks so the forests continue to protect us well into the future,” says Nicole Chabaneix, senior specialist in Climate Adaptation and Resilience and co-author of the tool.

To make sure the tool is robust enough to encompass the range of threats facing mangroves around the world, expert mangrove conservationists from WWF offices in Mexico, Colombia, Madagascar, Fiji, and the United States have been testing it on our priority mangrove forests over the last year and a half.

In Colombia, WWF is restoring mangrove forests that have been cut down. Using the tool has helped to clarify the importance of working with native species to achieve restoration goals. Melissa Abud, climate adaptation specialist with WWF Colombia, shares her team’s work so far:

“Using the Decision Support Tool, we identified that decreased rainfall (resulting in higher salinity) and increased sea level rise were the main climate threats to successful restoration. We also know that one of Colombia’s native species of mangrove, “nato” (Mora oleifera), is more tolerant to both flooding and salinity variation. So we are focusing on spreading nato propagules (seeds) and starting local plant nurseries to enrich the natural restoration of the forest. By using native species to address our main risks, we’ve seen a 62.5%-82% success rate across our restoration sites, which is good for this species. To manage the long-term survival of the forests, we’ve also engaged with the communities involved in the management and use of the forests.”

Trials have made the tool more robust and user-friendly. They’ve also highlighted the need to engage local communities and open interdisciplinary discussions about the problems facing mangroves and their nearby marine ecosystems. WWF’s goal is to see the tool applied across important mangrove sites (as determined by the Mangroves for Community and Climate project) and for the tool to receive widespread uptake by mangrove communities and experts as they begin or continue mangrove conservation efforts.

Addressing climate change risk with this tool will ultimately benefit the long-term viability and effectiveness of priority land and seascapes for all mangrove conservationists.

At WWF, we will continue to use the best available scientific and local knowledge to inform climate-smart management measures and monitor progress.

The tool’s Guidance Manual and Excel-based worksheet are now free to use following a robust trialing process and available to download here.