Impacts of El Nino events on ecosystem services provided by Colombian mangroves

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Environment


The current El Niño event in the tropical Pacific region is forecast to be one of the two strongest since records began. There is increasing evidence of links between the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and climate change. Climate change is putting increasing pressure on many ecosystems, making them and the communities that depend on them for their livelihoods more susceptible strong El Niño events, such as the 2015/16 event.

Mangrove conservation has been proposed as a form of Ecosystem-Based Adaptation (EBA) to help protect livelihoods in the face of climate change, providing co-benefits for biodiversity and local communities. However, this strategy may be rendered ineffective if the impacts of extreme El Nino and La Niña events threaten the survival and functioning of mangrove systems and their socio-economic consequences. It is therefore particularly urgent to quantify the impacts of El Niño on mangroves and their socio-economic consequences on the local communities; the current El Niño event provides a transient opportunity to obtain these critical baseline data.

Colombia is being affected severely by El Nino. There is a dearth of data for coastal regions, yet the impacts of both El Niño and La Niña on coastal communities in areas vulnerable to both droughts and floods have been severe, with shortages of fish and degradation of mangrove systems. Mangroves provide a range of ecosystem services that support livelihoods, including provisioning services such as fisheries, wood, agriculture and transportation, and regulating services such as flood protection, sediment regulation, erosion regulation and carbon storage. The status of mangroves and their intimate link to human well-being and poverty alleviation provides a unique opportunity to quantify the broader impacts of El Nino events.

In partnership with Grupo Laera and INVEMAR in Colombia, we will quantify the impacts of the current El Niño event on mangroves in two contrasting mangrove systems in Colombia - La Boquilla, which is a relatively high energy system, facing the open sea, and Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta (CGSM), which is a low energy, lagoonal system. Working with our partners, we will collect empirical data on the status of the mangrove system and the following ecosystem services: fisheries, flood and erosion regulation and sediment regulation. We will combine these data with quantitative and qualitative data on the economic and social impacts of the current El Niño event, and supplement them with time series environmental data from a series of monitoring stations maintained by INVEMAR, the Colombian Marine and Coastal Research Institute.

We will derive economic values associated with key ecosystem services from the mangroves using a combination of market-based and spatial value transfer approaches. We will work with local community groups and stakeholders (via workshops) to develop and refine our models of ecological and physical properties of the mangroves into integrated ecological-economic models, and use a future scenarios-based approach to examine the ecosystem and livelihood impacts of various anthropogenic pressures and internal changes within the mangroves.

The work will enhance the environmental and socio-economic evidence base of the impacts of the current El Niño event in Colombia and, through the development of co-produced models, contribute to a better understanding of resilience of these systems and the livelihoods they support, to future El Niño events in the region.

Planned Impact

The project will have a significant benefit for understanding the impacts of El Niño events on sustainability and livelihoods via its impact on ecosystem functioning and services in one of the most threatened habitats on Earth. This will inform future mitigation and adaptation strategies and build socio-economic resilience against future ENSO episodes.

The importance of managing biodiversity to ensure that ecosystems are resilient, continue to support livelihoods and contribute to poverty eradication is a central tenet of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets in the CBD's Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020. Understanding the impacts of environmental change via impacts on biodiversity is also emphasised in national and international programmes, such as BioMERGE (USA), MarBEF (EU), and Future Earth (international). Through Solan's membership of the scientific committee of ecoSERVICES, a project of Future Earth, and his participation in IPBES, the research will be well placed to inform the IPBES Regional Assessment for the Americas (Decision IPBES 3/1 Annex V). The work will also link in with The Nature Conservancy's Coastal Resilience Program of the Natural Coastal Protection project, which is a collaborative venture to understand how natural ecosystems can and should be worked into strategies for coastal protection. We will also link with the Mangrove Capital project, a partnership between Wetlands International, The Nature Conservancy, Deltares, Wageningen University and several Indonesian partner organisations, which advances the restoration of mangrove forests as an effective strategy for ensuring resilience against natural hazards and enhancing economic prosperity. Links to Wetlands International and other relevant international organisations such as UNEP-WCMC will be enabled by the team's policy networks, and by the location of UNEP-WCMC in Cambridge.

The new information generated on mangrove dynamics and their potential role as EBAs will be particularly timely since Colombia has recently introduced ecosystem services into its biodiversity policy (MADS, 2012) and the first national mapping of ecosystem services for Colombia has just been completed (Rodriguez et al., Land Use Policy 42:609). At the national level, the project will therefore provide authorities with information to feed into sectoral adaptation plans that are already being developed, particularly in the areas of fisheries and agriculture; it will also inform the national and local environmental authorities in decisions on infrastructure developments, where impacts on key mangrove ecosystem functions are likely to occur. Significantly, it will inform the relevant authorities in design of early warning systems to reduce the impacts of droughts related to future El Niño phenomena and floods related to La Niña. Finally, at the local level, it will provide with information to the Colombian Municipalities to improve their Local Territorial planning.

The interaction between UK scientists and Colombian scientists, and the involvement of INVEMAR is the research is likely to generate further collaboration between both countries. The protective role of mangroves is understudied in the Americas; this research will set the baseline for further research that informs decision makers and donors across the region about the effectiveness and characteristics of mangroves as EBAs and their contribution to resilience and livelihoods.


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Description climatic changes and short-term environmental shocks and stressors can profoundly influence ecosystems and societies. In low income contexts in the Tropics, extreme events associated with the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) can disproportionately affect people that depend on the natural capital provided by coastal ecosystems for their livelihoods. Changes in primary ENSO indicators, such as temperature and precipitation, directly link to changes in ecosystem integrity and resilience. Global attention has been focused primarily on the direct effects on coastal wetlands from these sudden-onset environmental events, such as variation in tidal inundation caused by storm-surges, sea-level changes or river flooding. However, coastal wetlands are inherently 'stressed' ecosystems due to dynamic fluctuations in natural drivers (salinity, dissolved oxygen and water temperature) and additional anthropogenic stressors such as nutrient input. These factors can all interact with important repercussions for natural capital and, inevitably, ecosystem services. Through analysis of time series data, we found that multiple complex interactions between different environmental and climatic factors had a cumulative impact on overall fishery productivity. We found negative effect from air temperature on overall fish catch but a positive effect on overall crustacean catch. In addition, we found indirect negative effects from air temperature through a positive effect on salinity, which had detrimental impacts on fish catch and crustacean catch. The work has highlighted how climate variability is interacting with other environmental stressors in causing degradation to coastal wetland ecosystems in the tropics, and that understanding these interactions, especially when combined with historical perspectives and community knowledge, can be an important foundation for efforts to build long-term resilience strategies to mediate the impacts of changing and uncertain climates in these systems.
Exploitation Route The findings have informed ongoing policy debates regarding the management of our study site in Colombia, and have helped to highlight how climate change interacts with multiple other factors in affecting ecosystems and livelihoods in coastal areas. The research can help inform governments and institutions of the need to enhance ecological health throughout catchments while also investing in the social fabric of communities and incentivising ecologically-sensitive adaptations to environmental change.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description The findings from the research have been used to inform a response by Invemar to the Colombian Government regarding the state of the ecosystem of La Cienaga de Santa Marta and the potential impacts of climate change on the system.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Environment
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description GCRF Building Resilience
Amount £199,000 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/P015328/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2016 
End 07/2017
Description Partnership with Grupo Laera, Colombia 
Organisation Grupo Laera
Country Colombia 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Grupo Laera provide field and logistical support for our work in Colombia, as well as providing intellectual input to the project.
Collaborator Contribution Grupo Laera provides field support, logistical assistance, workshop organisation, networking and intellectual contributions.
Impact One funded proposal in the GCRF Building Resilience programme.
Start Year 2016
Description Partnership with Invemar, Colombia 
Organisation Institute for Marine and Coastal Research
Country Colombia 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Invemar will be proving us with access to historical data relating to one of our study sites.
Collaborator Contribution Invemar will be providing data to assist with our project.
Impact No outputs as yet
Start Year 2017
Description Community mangrove festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We organised a mangrove festival in one of the local communities, together with the National Parks of Colombia and a number of community groups. The festival celebrated all things to do with mangroves, highlighting the importance of mangroves not only for fisheries and livelihoods but also for other benefits such as biodiversity, water provision and their cultural significance. The event included a football tournament, Colombian music, and a fashion show featuring costumes made of recycled materials with a mangrove theme. The event was attended by around 200 people.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Salobre - a short film about the ecosystem and communities of La Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We have made a short film, titled 'Salobre', which is Colombian for 'brackish', produced by a Colombian filmmaker. The film is in the final stages of editing. When it is finished, it will be distributed as a trailer for major movies through the Colombian cinema chain, Cine Colombia. This film will raise awareness among the Colombian public of the mangrove ecosystems and the communities they support, the challenges they face from environmental changes, and how they adapt to these. The film is entirely voiced by members of the communities living around the Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Workshop - past, present and future of La Cienaga 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact I participated in, and gave a presentation at, this workshop, which was organised by Invemar in Colombia, on Friday 15th September 2017
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017