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The coastal and marine environments of Abu Dhabi are diverse and include mangrove forests, saltmarshes, sabkha, intertidal mudflats with cyanobacterial mats and extensive subtidal seagrass meadows.
Project field surveys have discovered an unusual potential blue carbon ecosystem, and one that is unique to the Gulf states. Cyanobacterial (blue-green algal) mats associated with areas of sheltered intertidal mud are the present day representation of the earliest known forms of life identified in rock records, dating back 3.2 billion years. Primary production can be very high, but carbon storage may be highly variable depending upon soil conditions.
Mangroves are the most visible Blue Carbon ecosystem, occupying some 68 square kilometres along the UAE coast. A patch of mangrove forest in the east of Abu Dhabi was the first to be intentionally planted in the UAE and dates back to 1966. Over the following decades this practice was expanded along the Emirate’s coast, with particular success in sheltered locations adjacent to existing stands. A single species – the grey mangrove (Avicennia marina), locally known as Qurm – is found in Abu Dhabi. The dense and complex structure of old natural stands provides a rich environment for fish and other species.
On higher ground away from the water’s edge in areas of extremely high salinity (2-4 times greater than seawater), coastal sabkha, extensive areas of saltflats, occasionally flooded by extreme high tides, are hostile to all but the hardiest forms of life. While considered a fringe blue carbon habitat at the onset of the project, assessments indicate negligible carbon, and sabkha is therefore no longer considered a Blue Carbon ecosystem in this project.
Less visible, and beneath the waterline, Abu Dhabi hosts one of the world’s most expansive complex of seagrass meadows, supporting the second largest population of dugongs found anywhere. The meadows are populated by mosaics of three seagrass species (Halodule uninervis, Halophila ovalis, and Halophila stipulacea), which are found near the shore and around islands down to a depth of 8 metres. Like saltmarshes and mangroves, many seagrasses accumulate carbon within soils through the production and storage of root material.
Saltmarshes are relatively rare in the Emirate, found locally at high tidal elevations and behind mangrove stands. The vegetation consists of specialist salt tolerant dwarf shrubs of the goosefoot (Chenopodiaceae) and caltrop (Zygophyllaceae) family, as well as the desert hyacinth (Cistanche tubulosa) favored for eastern traditional medicinal benefits.