Last week, the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) and Google.org (Google’s philanthropic arm) announced the launch of a project called ManglarIA.
Spanish for “AI for Mangroves,” ManglarIA is a new, three-year project that will utilize artificial intelligence to understand how mangrove ecosystems — and their contributions to coastal communities — are affected by climate change.
Mangroves are a uniquely resilient and helpful species. They are a group of shrubs or trees that grow along coastlines and tidal rivers and are able to store carbon at about four times the rate of other types of forests.
They are an essential nature-based solution to climate change, providing vital levels of carbon sequestration and biodiversity to coastal ecosystems and economies — and it’s critical that they are protected.
Losing mangroves creates a disproportionately high amount of greenhouse gas emissions — which has already been seen in Mexico.
Throughout the country, WWF has been working to protect and restore mangrove ecosystems and has seen first-hand how coastal development and new infrastructure existentially threats Mexican mangroves — along with other climate threats, like frequent hurricanes, changing sea levels, and more.
That’s where ManglarIA comes in.
The project will identify key indicators of the health of mangroves and provide conservationists with better information to protect them, creating scalable and measurable solutions that can be replicated in other coastal regions.
Google.org has invested $5 million in ManglarIA, choosing the project from hundreds of submissions as part of its Impact Challenge on Climate Innovation grant program.
“We were looking for large-scale, ambitious, AI-enabled solutions that focus on funding the creation of data as a public good,” Google.org’s sustainability giving lead, Brian Juhyuk Lee, told Good Good Good in an email.
“To fight climate change, we need nature. To help nature survive climate change, we need more information. Technology can be a powerful ally in closing information gaps.”
Over the next three years, WWF will work with local community partners, research, and government institutions (like CONABIO, the Mexican Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity) to install networks of sensors in two biosphere reserves on Mexico’s Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coasts.
These sensors will include automated weather stations, water depth and salinity loggers, special drones, camera traps, and environmental DNA technology, to monitor the health and changes of the area’s mangrove forests, according to Shaun Martin, WWF’s vice president of adaptation and resilience and deputy lead of climate change.
“Building on a framework that WWF recently developed for climate-smart mangrove conservation, continuous monitoring of environmental variables with these networks will generate massive data sets,” Martin told Good Good Good.
“AI will help us analyze these data and learn how environmental change affects mangrove health, so we can help them survive the changing climate.”
Until now, scientists haven’t been able to fully understand how mangroves are responding to changes in weather and climate, so improving on Mexico’s existing world-class mangrove monitoring system will be a giant step in the right direction.
Researchers hope to learn things like how long it takes for mangroves to recover from tropical storms, which sites are best suited for restoration, how climate change affects mangroves’ ability to store carbon, and how economic activities dependent on mangroves might be influenced by climate change.
Martin says the ultimate goal is to replicate the ManglarIA model on a global scale to inform mangrove management and restoration across all coasts — combining the organic resilience of nature with the future of scientific innovation.
Lee, from Google.org, is excited by the prospect.
“Through this project with the World Wildlife Foundation, we hope to show that it is not an ‘either nature or tech,’” he said, “but that there are ‘nature-based, tech-enabled solutions’ that have a significant role to play in addressing climate change.”
Header image courtesy of the World Wildlife Fund