UMass Boston News

Blue Carbon; Green Harbors

Lisa Greber | December 06, 2011
Beach in Durban South Africa showing the restoration of the beach with plant life.

In North Durban, the Beachwood Mangroves Nature Reserve is a 76-hectare reserve with the largest population of mangrove trees still remaining in the Durban area. Mangroves are at first sight ungainly trees, with rough bark and contorted branches, but they are a critical part of coastal ecosystems, providing shoreline protection from storm surge and beach erosion, and habitat for numerous species. The plants survive in the difficult conditions of the intertidal, submerged in salty water, and often in anoxic, oxygen-deprived mud. Their roots, if remaining fully submerged, can offer hard surfaces for the growth of barnacles, sponges, and oysters.

This is the life behind the phrase “blue carbon” heard throughout COP17.

The loss of blue carbon means that globally coastal ecosystems—mangroves, salt marshes, eelgrass, and shellfish—have been lost to development, over-harvesting, and disease. Mangrove forests once likely covered the Durban coastal area, as did salt marshes along the eastern seaboard of the United States. Restoring these habitats may hold promise to mitigate the effects of global warming, both as carbon storage and as shoreline protection against rising seas. Restoration also supports the complex ecosystems of organisms that find their homes there.

Anamarija Frankić, director of the Green Boston Harbor Project (GBH) at the Center for Governance and Sustainability, is not sure if the new language will be sufficient to encourage communities to restore coastal and marine habitats such as mangroves, salt marshes, and shellfish beds. Little has been done to protect them before, she says, even knowing their tremendous ecological services and values. But there are hopeful signs. On some beaches around Durban, patches of mangrove are growing.

The Umgeni River wanders some 230 km before opening into the Beachwood mangrove reserve. In Boston, the Charles, the Neponset, and the Mystic Rivers drain into Boston Harbor. The health of “blue carbon” depends on the watersheds upstream, on the choices upland communities make to protect the water, as much as it does on the restoration efforts on the shore. The water connects us.

Each harbor is different, each one is similar. GBH has started a network of global green harbors to share best practices and community around the globe.

We were always a blue planet, says Frankić, referring to the rough wild Indian Ocean of Durban’s shores—water that has traveled its way around the world. In the end, it is not the name for “blue carbon” that matters, but the mangroves themselves, and our collective willingness to care for our particular coastal habitats and harbors in the context of a global whole.

(Based on reports from Durban from GBH Director Anamarija Frankić)


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