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Steve Hinnefeld
IU Communications

Last modified: Tuesday, April 17, 2012

IU Bloomington researcher shares grant to study mangrove forests in the Americas

April 17, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Mangrove forests are a key component of coastal ecosystems in tropical and subtropical regions. Yet much remains unknown about the range and variety of these forests and the extent to which they are threatened by factors such as development, population growth, aquaculture and sea-level rise.

Rinku Roy Chowdhury

Rinku Roy Chowdhury

Print-Quality Photo

A NASA-funded project by Indiana University Bloomington researcher Rinku Roy Chowdhury and colleagues at three other institutions will fill some of those gaps, adding to scientists' understanding of mangrove forests in the Americas. The study will combine large-scale remote sensing with detailed social and ecological investigations at locations in seven countries.

"We're trying to answer the question, how does the vulnerability of mangrove forests depend on human factors and climate change?" said Roy Chowdhury, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography in the College of Arts and Sciences. "And we're also looking at how those factors and vulnerability vary from region to region."

NASA awarded the three-year, $897,500 grant -- including $240,036 for IU -- through its Land-Cover and Land-Use Change program, an interdisciplinary science program focused on quantifying the location, extent and variability of changes in the earth's land systems, and the causes and consequences of that change, using space observations, in situ measurements, process studies and mathematical modeling.

The lead principal investigator is Marc Simard of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Co-principal investigators are Roy Chowdhury, Temilola Fatoyinbo of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Victor Rivera-Monroy of Louisiana State University.

Researchers will use sensing technologies, including space-based radar, to map the locations and canopy height of mangrove forests across North, Central and South America. They will collect ecological and social data sets for 18 regions and use the information to develop regional-scale models of mangrove vulnerability. And they will conduct in-depth local investigations, including household surveys and interviews, to validate the models.

The undertaking is one of three large-scale research projects focused on land systems science, for which Roy Chowdhury currently serves as co-principal investigator. The others are:

  • A study of homogenization of residential landscapes in U.S. urban areas, which examines how household characteristics and broader processes and policies (e.g., neighborhood institutions, municipal zoning) correlate with parcel-scale yard management decisions and their ecological consequences, focusing on Phoenix, Miami, Baltimore, Boston, St. Paul and Los Angeles. The four-year study, funded by the National Science Foundation's Long-Term Ecological Research Network, began in July 2011 and includes researchers from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Clark University, Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, the University of California-Irvine, Florida International University, the University of Minnesota and Arizona State University.
  • A collaboration with IU geographer Faiz Rahman and the U.S. Forest Service to study the impact of human activity and climate change on mangrove forests in Bangladesh. The project is funded by the NASA Carbon Cycle Science Program, a partnership with government agencies including the departments of Commerce, Energy and Agriculture.

Mangrove forests, made up of several varieties of trees and shrubs, are coastal wetlands that contribute to biodiversity and act as bio-geochemical links between upland and coastal regions. They protect shorelines from storms and erosion and contribute to nutrient cycling, habitat for many rare or threatened species, sources of wood and non-timber forest products, and fisheries production.

But their location and economic value put mangrove forests at risk from human activities, such as aquaculture and agriculture, fresh-water diversion, logging and development. Seawater rise and extreme weather events related to climate change may increase their vulnerability.

The study of mangroves in the Americas -- like Roy Chowdhury's U.S. urbanization study -- employs a comparative approach to land-systems science, linking household, community and institutional decisions about land management to their ecological consequences across a range of geographic regions.

"This comparative regional approach, when combined with in-depth-studies, enables us to develop a broad scientific understanding of social-ecological dynamics at multiple scales," she said. "This allows for insights that are far more useful to policy, because the studies can reveal nuances and variation in cause-effect relations across multiple contexts and systems, rather than be limited to one region or system."

Remote sensing technology will be used to track changes over time in mangrove forests, and that information will be integrated with social and ecological data from regional to household levels to create models of how human activity and climate change are impacting mangroves at different locations. Data will be collected in the United States (Florida), Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil.

To speak with Roy Chowdhury, contact Steve Hinnefeld at IU Communications, 812-856-3488 or