The coastal city of Abu Dhabi is one of the most vulnerable places in the world to the impacts of climate change. It’s threatened by rising sea levels and researchers say it could be too hot to live in by the end of this century if global warming trends continue.
But trees are helping the city fight the climate crisis. Mangroves – woody, salt-tolerant trees that grow along tropical coastlines – protect coastal areas from erosion, wave surges and floods by creating buffer zones and regulating tides.
“Mangroves are the first line of defense for any coastal city,” Shaikha Al Dhaheri, the head of Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency (EAD), told CNN. Mangroves are also a main breeding ground for fish and home to several species of birds.
But their work doesn’t stop there. They’re also key to the global fight to keep our planet’s temperature from rising more than a critical 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
“Mangroves trap carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the root system and sediments, acting as a carbon capture or carbon sink,” Amna Al Mansoori, a marine habitats scientist at EAD, explained.
One hectare of mangrove forest can store about 3,754 tons of carbon, according to a study done by Abu Dhabi’s government. That’s the equivalent of taking about 2,651 cars off the road for a year.
The UAE has among the highest CO2 emissions per capita in the world.
“Mature trees have extensive root systems, some roots measuring two to three meters, that make them very efficient at absorbing and capturing carbon,” Al Mansoori said. “Studies have shown that they capture more carbon than terrestrial forests and this makes them very important in fighting climate change.”
A study done in the Amazon suggests mangroves can store twice as much as the region’s rainforests.
Mangrove forests under threat
The World Wildlife Fund estimates over one-third of the planet’s mangroves have already been cleared. They’re often the victims of human encroachment and coastal development.
That was nearly the case in the United Arab Emirates. The country’s meteoric rise in the late 1970s and 1980s meant that some of its mangrove forests were lost.
“The pace of development was much faster than any protection could be put on the ground, but luckily because of the commitment from our leadership, starting with Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the UAE, mangroves were made a priority,” explained Al Dhaheri. “Today, for any development to happen in Abu Dhabi, it has to go into a very rigorous permitting and licensing procedure to protect habitats.”
The EAD’s current priority is to protect the 140 square kilometers of mangrove forests growing along Abu Dhabi’s coast. But the agency also helps rehabilitate damaged areas by planting new trees. Al Dhaheri says three million saplings have been planted in the last decade alone.
Using high-resolution satellite imagery, scientists estimate that Abu Dhabi’s mangrove coverage has nearly doubled since the 1990s, but the images also revealed that a fifth of the mangroves are in moderate or deteriorating health.
A recent study says that a vast global restoration of forests of all kinds could capture two-thirds of the carbon humans have added to the atmosphere, making it one of the most sustainable and cost-efficient ways of fighting climate change.
Al Dhaheri agrees.
“Being a mom, I think about my boys,” she said. “I think about future generations, whether they will be able to adapt to the harsh environment here. We know temperatures will increase if we don’t do anything, so it is worrying. If we don’t take any action toward climate change now, it will be catastrophic, it will be irreversible.”