(Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau via Getty Images)
The connection between Cuba and South Florida is deeply rooted, literally.
Both the Communist island and the U.S. bastion of anti-Castro sentiment are prone to the destructive capabilities of hurricanes, storm surges, coastal erosion as well as the specter of rising sea levels caused by global warming.
And now both are finding a hedge against those risks in ubiquitous, and frequently-maligned, mangrove trees.
The elaborate root structure of mangroves, much of it above the ground and below the water line, acts as a saltwater filter that traps sediment and helps break up waves.
Cuba is one of the few places in the Caribbean with extensive mangrove forests, accounting for about 69 percent of the region's current mangroves, the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund says.
But even there, , mangroves historically have been harvested heavily, for textile dyes, tannins used in the pharmaceutical industry, lumber for furniture and charcoal that rural Cubans rely on to fire their kitchens.
Environmentalists say that decades of neglect and uncontrolled logging have taken a big toll.
"The situation is bad. More than 30 percent of the mangroves are in a critical state," government forest scientist Reynier Samon said on a recent tour of Surgidero de Batabano, an area where deforestation has been extreme. The rest, he said, are in a state of medium deterioration.
So in the second half of 2013 a moratorium was declared on mangrove logging. Now, the final touches are being put on a sustainable management master plan that is expected to be in place before the end of the year. President Raúl Castro has said the plan is a top priority.
Part of the reason is that a government study last year found that 122 towns on the island could be wiped off the map by the year 2100 along with 1.2 miles of coastal land in low-lying areas.
"The perception of the importance of this ecosystem for these communities is low. They see it as something to exploit," said Samon, the government scientist.
Extensive reforestation isn't easy. There's no way of mechanizing the process, which means brigades of workers will have to wade into the swampy terrain and plant each mangrove by hand.
Even deciding what to plant where requires careful study. Red mangroves thrive next to the sea, black mangroves a few yards inland, "yana" mangroves beyond that. And if you plant any variety in a place that's too salty or not salty enough, it will die.
One solution – that would be there if it wasn’t for a 50-plus year embargo, that is – would be importing some of Florida’s ever expanding stands of mangroves.
In Florida – especially in the exposed Keys that stretch to about 90 miles from Cuba – years of unrestricted mangrove growth have created virtual forests, angering some residents who want unobstructed views of the ocean, but providing protection from storm surges and rising waters.
Scientists led by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center said in a report entitled, "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences," that due to climate change the mangrove forests that line much of Florida’s eastern seaboard have been expanding northward as water and air temperatures rise.
“The expansion isn't happening in a vacuum,” the PNAS study’s lead author Kyle Cavanaugh, a Smithsonian postdoctoral researcher, said in a statement. “The mangroves are expanding into and invading salt marsh, which also provides an important habitat for a variety of species.”
So it appears that nature – or at least the mangrove – is prepared to do its part in fighting against global warming.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.