The Asian Tsunami: A Protective Role for Coastal Vegetation

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  28 Oct 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5748, pp. 643
DOI: 10.1126/science.1118387


The 26 December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami had major effects on coastal communities and ecosystems. An assessment of coastlines after the tsunami indicates that coastal vegetation such as mangroves and beach forests helped to provide protection and reduce effects on adjacent communities. In recent years, mangroves and other coastal vegetation have been cleared or degraded along many coastlines, increasing their vulnerability to storm and tsunami damage. Establishing or strengthening greenbelts of mangroves and other coastal forests may play a key role in reducing the effect of future extreme events.

The scale of the 26 December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was almost unprecedented. In areas with the maximum tsunami intensity, little could have prevented catastrophic coastal destruction. Further away, however, areas with coastal tree vegetation were markedly less damaged than areas without. Mangrove forests are the most important coastal tree vegetation in the area and are one of the world's most threatened tropical ecosystems (1).

Measurement of wave forces and modelling of fluid dynamics suggest that tree vegetation may shield coastlines from tsunami damage by reducing wave amplitude and energy (2). Analytical models show that 30 trees per 100 m2 in a 100-m wide belt may reduce the maximum tsunami flow pressure by more than 90% (3). Empirical and field-based evidence is limited, however.

Cuddalore District in Tamil Nadu, India, provides a unique experimental setting to test the benefits of coastal tree vegetation in reducing coastal destruction by tsunamis (4). Cuddalore has a relatively straight shoreline, a fairly uniform beach profile, and a homogenous continental slope. Moreover, the shoreline comprises vegetated as well as non-vegetated areas and was documented by cloudfree pre- and post-tsunami satellite images.

The force of the tsunami impact in Cuddalore is illustrated by the central part of our study area (Fig. 1). At the river mouth, the tsunami completely destroyed parts of a village (fig. S1) and removed a sand spit that formerly blocked the river. However, areas with mangroves (Fig. 1, dark green polygon) and tree shelterbelts were significantly less damaged than other areas (supporting online text). Damage to villages also varied markedly. In the north, stands of mangroves had five associated villages, two on the coast and three behind the mangrove. The villages on the coast were completely destroyed, whereas those behind the mangrove suffered no destruction even though the waves damaged areas unshielded by vegetation north and south of these villages. In the south, the shore is lined with Casuarina plantations (Fig. 1). Five villages are located within these plantations and all experienced only partial damage. The plantations were undamaged except for rows of 5 to 10 trees nearest to the shore, which were uprooted (fig. S2).

Fig. 1.

Pre-tsunami tree vegetation cover and post-tsunami damages in Cuddalore District, Tamil Nadu, India.

Our results suggest that mangroves and Casuarina plantations attenuated tsunami-induced waves and protected shorelines against damage. Human activities reduced the area of mangroves by 26% in the five countries most affected by the tsunami, from 5.7 to 4.2 million ha, between 1980 and 2000 (5). Conserving or replanting coastal mangroves and greenbelts should buffer communities from future tsunami events. Mangroves also enhance fisheries (6) and forestry production. These benefits are not found in artificial coastal protection structures. Coastal tree vegetation can be established for investments of U.S.$150 to U.S.$2000 per ha (7). Mangroves, however, are suitable for planting only on coastal mudflats and lagoons, which cover ∼25% of the continental coastline of the Bay of Bengal (8). Elsewhere, the conservation of dune ecosystems or green belts of other tree species, such as Casuarina, could fulfil the same protective role.

Supporting Online Material

Materials and Methods

SOM Text

Figs. S1 and S2

Table S1

References and Notes

References and Notes

View Abstract

Navigate This Article