ENSO-driven extreme oscillations in mean sea level destabilise critical shoreline mangroves: An emerging threat

Norman Clive Duke, Jock R. Mackenzie, Adam D. Canning, Lindsay B. Hutley, Adam J. Bourke, John M. Kovacs, Riley Cormier, Grant Staben, Leo Lymburner, Emma Ai

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Recent ENSO-related, extreme low oscillations in mean sea level, referred to as ‘Taimasa’ in Samoa, have destabilised shoreline mangroves of tropical northern Australia, and possibly elsewhere. In 1982 and 2015, two catastrophic Taimasa each resulted in widespread mass dieback of ~76 km2 of shoreline mangroves along 2,000 km of Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria. For the 2015 event, we determined that a temporary drop in sea level of ~0.4 metres for up to six months duration caused upper zone shoreline mangroves across the region to die from severe moisture deficit and desiccation. The two dramatic collapse events revealed a previously unrecognised vulnerability of semi-arid tidal wetland habitats to more extreme ENSO influences on sea level. In addition, we also observed a relationship between annual sea level oscillations and mangrove forest productivity where seasonal oscillations in mean sea level were co-incident with regular annual mangrove leaf growth during months of higher sea levels (March-May), and leaf shedding during lower sea levels (September-November). The combination of these periodic fluctuations in sea level defined a mangrove ‘Goldilocks’ zone of seasonal productivity during median-scale oscillations, bracketed by critical threshold events when sea levels became unusually low, or high. On the two occasions reported here when sea levels were extremely low, upper zone mangrove vegetation died en masse in synchrony across northern Australia. Such extreme pulse impacts combined with localised stressors profoundly threaten the longer-term survival of mangrove ecosystems and their benefits, like minimisation of shoreline erosion with rising sea levels. These new insights into such critical influences of climate and sea level on mangrove forests offer further affirmation of the urgency for implementing well-considered mitigation efforts for the protection of shoreline mangroves at risk, especially given predictions of future re-occurrences of extreme events affecting sea levels, combined with on-going pressure of rapidly rising sea levels.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0000037
Pages (from-to)1-23
Number of pages23
JournalPLOS Climate
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2022


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