© 2020, The Author(s). Mangrove forests provide many ecosystem services but are among the world’s most threatened ecosystems. Mangroves vary substantially according to their geomorphic and sedimentary setting; while several conceptual frameworks describe these settings, their spatial distribution has not been quantified. Here, we present a new global mangrove biophysical typology and show that, based on their 2016 extent, 40.5% (54,972 km2) of mangrove systems were deltaic, 27.5% (37,411 km2) were estuarine and 21.0% (28,493 km2) were open coast, with lagoonal mangroves the least abundant (11.0%, 14,993 km2). Mangroves were also classified based on their sedimentary setting, with carbonate mangroves being less abundant than terrigenous, representing just 9.6% of global coverage. Our typology provides a basis for future research to incorporate geomorphic and sedimentary setting in analyses. We present two examples of such applications. Firstly, based on change in extent between 1996 and 2016, we show while all types exhibited considerable declines in area, losses of lagoonal mangroves (− 6.9%) were nearly twice that of other types. Secondly, we quantify differences in aboveground biomass between mangroves of different types, with it being significantly lower in lagoonal mangroves. Overall, our biophysical typology provides a baseline for assessing restoration potential and for quantifying mangrove ecosystem service provision.