Abstract: Oil spills cause long-lasting mangrove loss, threatening their conservation and ecosystem services worldwide. Oil spills impact mangrove forests at various spatial and temporal scales. Yet, their long-term sublethal effects on trees remain poorly documented. Here, we explore these effects based on one of the largest oil spills ever recorded, the Baixada Santista pipeline leak, which hit the mangroves of the Brazilian southeastern coast in 1983. Historical, Landsat-derived normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) maps over the spilled mangrove reveal a large dieback of trees within a year following the oil spill, followed by a eight-year recolonization period and a stabilization of the canopy cover, however 20–30% lower than initially observed. We explain this permanent loss by an unexpected persistence of oil pollution in the sediments based on visual and geochemical evidence. Using field spectroscopy and cutting-edge drone hyperspectral imaging, we demonstrate how the continuous exposure of mangrove trees to high levels of pollution affects their health and productivity in the long term, by imposing permanent stressful conditions. Our study also reveals that tree species differ in their sensitivity to oil, giving the most tolerant ones a competitive advantage to recolonize spilled mangroves. By leveraging drone laser scanning, we estimate the loss of forest biomass caused by the oil spill to be 9.8–91.2 t ha−1, corresponding to 4.3–40.1 t C ha−1. Based on our findings, we encourage environmental agencies and lawmakers to consider the sublethal effects of oil spills on mangroves in the environmental cost of these accidents. We also encourage petroleum companies to use drone remote sensing in monitoring routines and oil spill response planning to improve mangrove preservation and impact assessment.
Keywords: Mangrove, Oil spill, Hyperspectral imagery, LiDAR, Artificial intelligence