Extreme E sows the seeds of the future

If the Amazon rainforest represents the lungs of the Earth, the oceans and seas are something akin to the lifeblood of the Earth, and mangroves play a pivotal role in the way they capture carbon.

71 per cent of the Earth’s surface consists of water, representing the roaring oceans and seas which help give our planet the nickname the Blue Planet. Life on Earth would be simply impossible without this precious resource, and in fact, it is believed to have started in this aquatic environment.

Millions of years of continental shift have changed the profiles and names of our planet’s oceans and seas, and change is nothing new for them. However, droughts have come and gone, reshaping the vegetation that helps protect the biodiversity of our oceans. Mangroves are one such plant which has a significant positive impact on our environment, but they need our help. Fortunately, Extreme E is in a position to lend a hand.

Seeding Senegal

As motorsport fans were preparing to be glued to their screens with Extreme E’s Ocean X Prix at Lac Rose, Senegal, there was more going on beneath the surface. Much of Senegal’s landscape can appear dry and dusty, seemingly unable to support life. In particular parts of the country, however, water becomes increasingly plentiful. Where the water flows, so too does life. The Saloum Delta in Senegal is such a place.

It’s an area that would have been covered in mangroves in the past…the deforestation comes for a variety of reasons. Shrimp farming is one of the reasons a lot of land is cleared.

– Louisa Tholstrup, Extreme E’s Legacy Programme Leader

Mangrove trees are just some of the plants in the world which thrive off salty water, with long tendril-like roots which are covered in clusters of oysters. Above the surface, the mangroves form a dense canopy, giving little indication about what hides beneath. Trees as large as the mangrove start from small beginnings. In fact, each mangrove starts life germinating while still attached to its ‘mother’ mangrove tree.

Mangrove seeds, or propagules, are long, green string-bean-like seeds which, having germinated already, are ready to grow as soon as they drop to the ground. After a lifetime of growing and thriving, like all things, mangrove trees eventually die and as they do so, they decompose into the soil, making it fertile enough for fresh mangroves to spring up.

During life, the mangroves absorb CO2, sequestering it from the atmosphere. When they die, mangrove roots rot in the ground, trapping the CO2 below the surface. When the tide is down in mangrove swamps such as those found around the Sine-Saloum region, you can walk across damp sandy soil for what seems like an eternity. Just scratch below the surface layer of this sandy soil with your feet, and a darker layer is revealed: carbon-rich biomass, allowing you look directly at the sequestered carbon itself.

Planting the future

Extreme E, with the help of local NGO Oceanium and to.org, have already started planting mangroves across a 65-hectare area, with 500,000 propagules planted since June 2020 and another 500,000 expected to be planted by 2021, giving a grand total of one million mangroves planted. This million-mangrove plantation legacy project comes at an important time.

It’s late May, and on the ground at a mangrove plantation in Sine-Saloum, an assembly of Extreme E racers as well as marine scientist Sheena Talma and Louisa Tholstrup, Extreme E’s Legacy Programme Leader, are on hand, planting propagules. Asked to plant each propagule in an orderly row, the racers can be seen stooping every so often to plant these green shoots into the wet sand, only rise up again and take a large step before planting another.

“This is an area that had really bad deforestation rates”, explains Louisa. “It’s an area that would have been covered in mangroves in the past…the deforestation comes for a variety of reasons. Shrimp farming is one of the reasons a lot of land is cleared.”

In the case of the empty patches of marshy soil in Sine-Saloum, however, shrimp farming wasn’t necessarily responsible, but Louisa adds: “For women to cook the food, they collect the [mangrove] roots, which they then burn as fuel.”

In order to feed themselves, local women traditionally had little choice but to use the resources of the surrounding environment for fuel, unintentionally reducing the number of mangroves which could propagate as a result. This doesn’t paint the full picture of where all the mangroves have gone.

Louisa expands on the subject further, revealing that: “Senegal suffered an enormous number of droughts…many mangroves were lost due to these droughts.”

The droughts Louisa is referring to are known as the Sahel Droughts, a period of intensely low precipitation which worsened between 1968 and 1985. The lack of rain had adverse effects on the environment and the people who lived in the surrounding area, resulting in famine, mass migration and economic turmoil. The Sahel region is sandwiched between the Saharan desert to the north and the lush Sudanian savannah to the south, making its climate oscillate between periods of lush greenery and intolerable droughts.

The Droughts during the last quarter of the 20th century defined a generation and were responsible for a significant loss in vegetation, including the destruction of many mangroves. The Million Mangrove plantation gives the mangroves that much needed helping hand.

Getting to the root of the problem

At the mangrove plantation, Sheena Talma is joining in on the action. She is a marine scientist, a native from the Seychelles, a chain of over 100 islands based off the East African coast, situated in the Indian Ocean. Sheena is a conservationist as well as the Science Program Manager at the Nekton Foundation, a charity which makes it its mission to accelerate scientific exploration and protection of the world’s oceans.

Their work comes at a crucial moment, as the Nekton Foundation claims just eight per cent of the oceans are considered any kind of designated Marine Protected Area (MPA). Mangroves play an important role in maintaining the health of our oceans – useful habitats for species of fish, a home for oysters to cling to, while performing many other roles in local ecosystems. However, just letting nature take its course risks making the necessary changes too incremental to make a sizable impact.

“Mangroves are sensitive to changes”, Sheena tells us. She points to some of the smaller mangrove shrubs around us, some of which are barely up to our waists and covered in an array of foliage, and others which are just above our ankles, having just sprouted. To our surprise, she reveals that mangroves such as these may have taken over a decade to grow up to our waists, and the smaller ankle-high growths have taken at least a year to get to this point.
“The reason they’re putting in the propagules is to give them a better chance”, Sheena adds, “because if they just drop off, they will eventually grow, but by doing this, you give that much more of a chance.”

The Saloum Delta is blanketed in an expansive sea of larger, leafy green mangrove trees in our immediate surroundings as far as the eye can see, with not a hint of human civilisation for seemingly miles around. When we ask how long it may have taken for these larger trees to grow, Sheena replies: “This is something that we spoke about with Oceanium, and what they said is that it really depends what the soil is like. It might take five, nine, twelve years…it just depends, is it a really fertile area, and they may grow faster.”

The Million Mangrove plantation has been timed to best-suit the climate of the local area, to ensure that the mangroves take root as effectively as possible. May is the perfect time for planting, as it comes just at the start of a six-month long rainy season, with the bulk of Senegal’s rainfall expected between June and October. This gives the propagules plenty of water and nourishment to encourage them to grow, and within a decade or so, it will begin to become clear how effective this planting exercise truly is.

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