Nature has unique, almost mystical ways of healing and preserving itself. For millions of years, the delicate balance of nature has been upheld by numerous natural processes that keep our ecosystems in an intricate but fragile dance with one another. Of course, human involvement and alteration have shifted these processes.

Our actions have led to a general imbalance across the planet, climate change being one of the most obvious results. As dismal as that might seem, the natural processes that we have at our disposal have not been completely erased, and many scientists and lobby groups are working to utilise the gifts of the earth’s resilience. Mangroves are one of the earth’s most useful tools.

Towering prop roots, an array of incredible biodiversity and mind-bogglingly dense networks of branches and roots that protect us from the worst effects of storms…our mangroves are monuments to the earth’s design. An Institute of Marine Affairs team explained why in their quest to improve climate change mitigation strategies, they are taking their research underground, deep into the mangrove soils.

There is no silver bullet when it comes to climate change. We need to investigate all possibilities and that means not just finding ways to reduce emissions but also exploring methods to remove and keep carbon out of the atmosphere. Finding creative strategies to combat climate change means studying and harnessing the full potential of the already existing solutions in our natural environment. One of these is Biological Carbon Sequestration. Hamish Asmath, GIS Officer of the Institute of Marine Affairs explained, “As trees grow they absorb carbon from the atmosphere. They incorporate this into their leaves and into their woody tissues. When all this organic matter falls or dies, it falls onto the surface of the mangrove soils. All the prop roots trap that carbon and do not allow it to get dispersed. There is a very fine matrix of roots – very fibrous roots – which help to hold all of this organic matter and carbon in the soil and that carbon decomposes into the soil. As the organic matter breaks down, carbon is incorporated into the soil. In addition, because they exist in estuarine environments, which are very high in silts and clays, the carbon is easily trapped.”

This research is part of the Mangrove Soil Carbon Assessment Project. This is a regional project involving T&T, Guyana and Suriname funded by the British High Commission which will give us the first measurements in mangrove soil carbon for these countries involved. Carbon dioxide is one of the main drivers of climate change and mangrove soils actually store four to 20 times as much carbon as the trees that are above them. In fact, mangrove soils actually store many times the amount of carbon as regular forests. Asmath elaborated further on the research process, “What we are working on is trying to find the best location where we can take a soil core. We need to get down to at least a metre in depth,” he stated. “When we get back from the field, we take the wet weight of the samples. They are then placed in the oven at 60 degrees Celsius for three to five days. At that point they are completely and thoroughly dried and then we take the dry weight. The dry weight and the volume of the sample is used to calculate the bulk density which is an essential component when we are calculating the total amount of carbon in the mangrove soils. When we multiply the bulk density by the carbon percentage, we get the total amount of carbon in that sample.” These carbon profiles for the various soil samples are used to calculate the total carbon stored in each study area. The research is robust and they are testing the effects of different parameters on stored carbon. They test sites with Red mangroves versus Black mangroves versus replanted sites and many more.

How is this research useful in combating and understanding climate change? Dr Rahanna Juman, Director (Ag.) of IMA and wetlands expert explained the significance of the research: “The importance of the study is understanding how much carbon is stored and this helps in terms of how we can use this information, how we can monetise this information. There are initiatives under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – we talked about REDD+ which is Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries and mangroves are to be included under this project and looking at an initiative like this where we can actually receive payments to preserve our mangrove forest in a relatively pristine state or to rehabilitate degraded ecosystems so that they can continue to store the carbon. Countries in the Caribbean can also eventually participate in carbon trading markets which are relatively new markets and they’re still working out the mechanism by which the carbon is going to be monetized but by having robust data on the amount of carbon that is actually stored in our mangrove forest – both in the biomass and in the sediment, we are sort of proactive and waiting so that when that opportunity comes along, we can be engaged in carbon trading in these international markets and this will help us to preserve our mangrove forest.”

It doesn’t end at just helping direct conservation efforts and being proactive about future opportunities, Dr Juman also said that this data, which will be publicly available, can be used by current net emitter companies considering mangrove restoration to offset some emissions and by policy makers to support evidence-based decision making. Research like this is not only an integral part of Theme V of vision 2030 Placing the Environment at the Centre of Social and Economic Development but it also supports our national commitment to global efforts like the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals particularly Goal 13 – Climate Action.

More than ever, the international community needs to cooperate on climate action. While this research was spearheaded by the IMA, it is happening in collaboration with other Caribbean researchers, universities and government bodies and was funded by the British High Commission. Her Excellency Harriet Cross, British High Commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago spoke on the value of working together to facilitate projects like these, “The reason is simple and the science is clear,” she said, “climate change is a deadly threat to humanity. We must urgently scale up action to have a chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. T&T is a small island developing state; the UK recognises how devastating changes to climate can be to this country, this is why over the past five years we’ve been working closely with partners in government, business, academia, civil society to grow a great prioritisation of the environment.” Her Excellency continued, “our latest project with the Institute of Marine Affairs built on work done with Professor John Agard and the University of the West Indies about carbon sequestration in mangroves, this recent project shows the importance of ensuring we are collecting the right data to make informed choices. Information on carbon sequestered in the above and below ground mangrove soils will be important as Trinidad and Tobago works to achieve its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and fulfil commitments to the UN Sustainable Goals. Projects like this help us be ambitious, meet the Paris Agreement Goals, support stronger national action and stronger international collaboration all of which is needed to tackle climate change and protect current and future generations.”

Our mangroves are truly incredible. They are one of the most productive ecosystems on earth but in our region until recently, they are also one of the least studied and least understood. Thanks to the researchers at the IMA and their collaborators and their literally ground-breaking research, we’re finally beginning to understand the true value that these amazing forests hold.

To learn more about this project and other environmental initiatives from the Ministry of Planning and Development and the IMA follow us on social media @planningtt and @imagovtt.