Why researchers are studying SWFL mangroves after Hurricane Ian

Published: January 23, 2023 4:19 PM EST
Updated: January 23, 2023 4:23 PM EST

Mangroves are protected wetland ecosystems. People cannot build on or within them as they do so much for us, the water, and animals.

WINK News environmental reporter Liz Biro spoke with two groups studying the mangroves after Hurricane Ian.

Getting to the mangroves is the easy part. Getting through the mangroves, with their dense intertwining branches and mud floors, that’s the hard part.

Mangroves. (Credit: WINK News)

Studying them has to be done because of everything they do for those living in Florida, especially during hurricanes.

“Mangroves act as a barrier, which protects us from storm surges,” said Megan King, research field assistant at the Water School at FGCU.

“If they weren’t present, the damages would have been much more severe in terms of their impacts on our community,” said Dr. Brian Bovard, assistant director of the Water School at FGCU.

The mangroves are a protective belt along our coastline. During Ian, they caught debris.

“Refrigerators, docks, boats, all the way to toys. They were all out there. And if those mangroves weren’t there, they would have ended up in someone’s backyard,” said King.

They’re integral to our fisheries. They absorb carbon in the environment and provide a home for various species.

Mangroves. (Credit: WINK News)

Professor Bovard and research assistant King have studied the Estero Bay mangroves since after Irma and were back at it a week after Ian.

“We started seeing that a lot of that leaf coverage was taken off by the hurricane. What we didn’t anticipate was that was going to continue to drop over time,” said Bovard.

“As climate change continues to progress and disturbance events become more frequent and more intense. It’s gonna leave less time for these mangroves to recover and recoup. Leaving us more vulnerable here on the coastal communities,” King said.

Eric Milbrandt. (Credit: WINK News)

Twenty-six miles away at Tarpon Bay, Eric Milbrandt, with the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, studies the jack-of-all-trades plant using a time-lapse. “Which takes up picture every two or three hours,” said Milbrandt.

It’s the same story, but there’s hope.

“The good news is there’s usually abundant seedlings underneath, and you’ll see them start to grow,” said Milbrandt. “We have a lot of natural infrastructure in terms of these trees are protecting our buildings, our properties from wind and flooding, and so we can learn about their recovery and help us better plan our communities around them.”

The one problem, mangroves are slow growers. Researchers are concerned another storm may hit before they can fully recover.