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Keywords:

  • Bahia Magdalena;
  • Baja California;
  • Coastal lagoons;
  • Coastal vegetation change;
  • El Niño;
  • Sea-level rise

Abstract

Question: Although mangrove forests are generally regarded as highly threatened, some studies have shown that mangrove canopies in the Pacific coast of Mexico have been increasing in recent decades. We investigated the possible causes driving this reported mangrove expansion.

Location: The mangrove lagoons of Magdalena Bay in Baja California, Mexico.

Methods: We used 50-year-old aerial photographs and 24-year-old satellite images to compare long-term vegetation change, surveyed a coastal vegetation transect to analyse flooding levels, compiled six decades of tidal and oceanographic information, as well as hurricane data to analyse changes in storm frequency or sea-level conditions, and used isotopic analysis to date the age of trees along the gradient.

Results: A significant increase in mangrove cover has occurred in backwaters of the lagoons during the last 40 years, and especially during the El Niño anomalies of the 1980s and 1990s, while at the same time the mangrove fringe has been receding.

Conclusions: The observed change can be attributed to the combined action of the warm surface waters of El Niño events and sea-level rise. Jointly, these two effects are sufficient to flood large areas of previously non-flooded salt flats, dispersing mangrove seedlings inland. The inland expansion of mangroves, however, does not ease conservation concerns, as it is the seaward fringes, and not the inland margins, that provide the most valuable environmental services for fisheries and coastal protection.