DURHAM, N.C. – A new NASA grant for nearly $820,000 will fund a three-year, Duke University-led study to monitor mangrove loss in South Asia and identify effective mitigation and protection strategies to help reverse the decline.

South Asia’s mangrove forests provide numerous essential ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation, that benefit populations worldwide. They also help protect densely populated coastal regions in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Pakistan from storm surge and flooding.

“These forests increasingly are under threat from both natural and human-derived forces, including pollution, development and sea-level rise,” says Jeffrey R. Vincent, interim dean and Clarence F. Korstian Professor of Forest Economics and Management at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, who is principal investigator of the new $819,540 grant.

“Our new project, which integrates research on remote sensing, conservation biology and environmental economics, will help us better understand the rates, patterns and causes of changes occurring to mangrove cover since 1985, and the resulting impacts these changes have had on the vital ecosystem services mangroves provide,” Vincent says.

Three other Nicholas School faculty members are co-investigators on the new grant. They are Brian Murray, research professor of environmental economics; Stuart L. Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology; and Brian R. Silliman, Rachel Carson Associate Professor of Marine Conservation Biology.  

Chandra Giri, a sensing and spatial analysis expert at the U.S. EPA’s National Exposure Research Laboratory, is also a co-investigator. Giri is an adjunct faculty member in the Nicholas School’s division of Environmental Sciences and Policy

In addition to his faculty appointment at the Nicholas School, Murray serves as director of the Environmental Economics Program at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Using Landsat data, high-resolution satellite images and data from field surveys, the research team will document annual changes that have occurred in mangrove cover across the five-nation region since 1985 at a 30-meter resolution scale – a much finer geographic scale than previously has been available.

They’ll then estimate the effects of these changes on carbon stocks and species extinction risks, and analyze the economic effectiveness of existing and proposed mangrove protection programs.

“We’ll be able to show how much forest remains, and how fragmented it is,” Vincent says. “We also be able to determine which areas have the most endemic species facing the greatest extinction risks as a result of the habitat loss and fragmentation.”

Findings from the three-year project will be shared with policymakers, conservation groups and scientists worldwide.