While attending the U.N. climate talks in Qatar earlier this month, I spent most of my time in the Qatar National Convention Centre, drinking coffee and watching critical discussions about climate change inch forward at a snail’s pace.
As important as those discussions are, I’ve found it can be difficult to maintain perspective of their value while attending technical meetings in windowless conference rooms. Which is why one morning in Doha, instead of taking the shuttle from my hotel to the convention centre, I boarded a different bus — one headed beyond the realm of the city’s skyscrapers and construction cranes. Instead, I was going to visit a place whose role in reducing the impact of climate change is often overlooked.
The bus was headed for Al Thakira mangrove forest — the site of a project supported by CI and Qatar Foundation International (QFI). I was joined by colleagues from CI, QFI and partners, along with several journalists and a group of Qatari high school students. These students would be demonstrating a new mangrove mapping tool, as well as placing remote sensors on some of the mangroves to collect scientific data.
We drove an hour north along the coast, as the clouds threatened to bring a rare rainstorm. The bus eventually arrived in a town called Al Khor, which was once a small fishing village. Now home to many workers employed in the nearby oil and natural gas fields, Al Khor’s population has doubled in five years.
Despite the town’s proximity to the coast, most of its residents are unaware of the benefits of the mangrove forest that lies between it and the Persian Gulf.
As we piled off the bus at Al Thakira, I took off my shoes and waded knee-deep into the water. For those who have never seen mangroves before, “forest” may seem an odd characterization for this collection of short, scrubby trees emerging from the muddy beach.
Yet despite their unglamorous appearance, the roots of these trees play an important role in buffering the coast from large waves offshore.
“Without these mangroves, the coastline would be hundreds of meters inland,” said Dr. Emily Pidgeon, the senior director of strategic marine initiatives in CI’s Global Marine division and an expert in coastal ecosystems. As proof, she pulled up a handful of gray mud, full of the fibrous material that keeps the mud in place.
Qatar’s mangroves provide other benefits too; together with the adjacent salt marshes and seagrass beds, they provide important habitat for many bird species. This was clear as soon as we arrived; we were greeted by a flock of greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) wading in the shallow water — the first birds I’d seen in the country besides pigeons.
The mangroves’ extensive root system is also important for fish populations. Besides oil and natural gas, fish is one of Qatar’s only natural resources, and an important source of income for many. Most fish species rely on the mangroves for at least part of their life cycle.
Recently, scientists have uncovered another important benefit of these coastal ecosystems: the role that mangroves, salt marshes and seagrasses play in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil below. “These ecosystems are small in area, but they pack a lot of punch when it comes to carbon,” Dr. Pidgeon said.
Although more research is needed, studies estimate that coastal ecosystems are the most efficient at storing carbon. In fact, they may sequester and store up to five times as much carbon as tropical forests. Yet these reservoirs of “blue carbon” are seriously threatened. Across the globe, coastal ecosystems are currently being lost at a rate of about 2% a year — significantly higher than the deforestation rate of tropical forests. When these areas are destroyed, the carbon is released back into the atmosphere, where it contributes to global climate change.
In Qatar, these ecosystems — particularly mangroves — are threatened by development, overgrazing by camels and other factors. Although 40% of Qatar’s coastline is currently covered by protected areas, about 70% of the country’s mangroves have already been lost.
The first step to saving these ecosystems is to learn more about them. Last year, CI and QFI developed a mobile-based crowd-sourcing tool called “Mapping the Mangroves,” which allows anyone to upload photos and input information about mangroves anywhere in the world. After being tested by scientists from CI and peer institutions, this program is now being piloted by a group of high school students from Qatar, Brazil and the U.S.
Using iPads, some of the students showed us how they use this program to record and share data about Al Thakira’s mangroves. Although for now the program is mostly an educational tool intended to raise awareness among young people, CI and QFI hope that the data users are collecting — both here and at other sites across the globe — will help expand scientific knowledge about the health of the world’s coastal ecosystems.
In addition to adding information to “Mapping the Mangroves,” in Al Thakira several students climbed trees to install solar-powered remote sensors that will send real-time data on air and water temperatures to a database. This data will provide clues about optimal conditions for mangrove growth.
Eventually the partners hope to add an application that will track carbon stored in the mangroves and other coastal ecosystems. The data collected is being aggregated to build a digital map of the world’s mangroves, allowing scientists to see where mangroves live — and where they are the most threatened.
Molly Bergen is the managing editor of CI’s blog.