Storm surges occur when high winds and low atmospheric pressure raise water levels at the coast, causing sea water to surge onto the land. They are a major threat to low-lying coastal areas and their inhabitants. The largest storm surges are caused by tropical cyclones (also called hurricanes and typhoons in different regions); peak water levels can exceed 7 m in height, and can result in extensive flooding, loss of life and damage to property. Global climate change may result in increased storm surge flooding in some areas, through intensification of the cyclones driving the storm surges and as a result of sea level rise.
Mangroves can reduce storm surge water levels by slowing the flow of water and reducing surface waves. Therefore mangroves can potentially play a role in coastal defence and disaster risk reduction, either alone or alongside other risk reduction measures such as early warning systems and engineered coastal defence structures (e.g. sea walls).
Measured rates of storm surge reduction through mangroves range from 5 to 50 centimetres water level reduction per kilometre of mangrove width. In addition, surface wind waves are expected to be reduced by more than 75% over one kilometre of mangroves.
Few data are available on surge reduction rates through mangroves because of the difficulties associated with measuring water levels during storm surges. All data currently available are from the south-eastern United States, where networks of recorders have been placed in wetland areas. Numerical models and simulations, validated using this data, provide the only means of exploring the importance of different factors in reducing storm surge heights.
The numerical model of Zhang et al. (2012; Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 102: 11-23) suggests that mangroves are more effective at reducing the water levels of fast moving surges than those of slow moving surges. The model also indicates that water level reduction through mangroves is non-linear, with the greatest reduction in surge height occurring near the seaward edge of the mangroves. Seaward of mangroves, a bulge of water can form as the water piles up in front of the mangroves; this can increase storm surge levels in this area.
Several topics relating to storm surge reduction by mangroves are yet to be explored, such as the effect of mangrove density, species composition and vegetative morphology. Dense mangrove forests, including species with aerial roots, are expected to increase storm surge reduction rates.
By reducing water levels and wave energy, mangroves can save lives and reduce storm-surge related damage to infrastructure: during a typhoon in north-east India, mangroves reduced the number of lives lost, as well as reducing damage to houses, crops and possibly coastal defence structures. Mangroves can also help people recover after coastal disasters by providing firewood, building materials and food sources (e.g. fish and shellfish that live among mangrove aerial roots).
Cyclones and storm surges also impact mangroves themselves; some trees may be defoliated or uprooted. Extreme events with very high water levels and wind speeds may severely damage or destroy mangrove areas, rendering them less effective at reducing surge heights. Natural recovery can take many years to decades; restoration projects may speed up recovery.
Further data on storm surge reduction by mangroves and further refinements to numerical models and simulations will improve our ability to understand and quantify the coastal defence services provided by mangrove forests against storm surges. Such information is needed to ensure that the coastal defence functions of mangroves are utilised appropriately, either alone or in combination with other measures, to reduce risk to people and infrastructure from storm surges.