The importance of wetlands: why care and protect them?

By Daniil Filipenco

The importance of wetlands: why care and protect them?

Wetlands are crucial ecosystems for the filtration of excessive water in some parts of the world and for storing carbon, preventing the overheating of the atmosphere. This is why they are often called the ‘kidneys’ of the landscape. Moreover, they are home to numerous flora and fauna species and thus are vital as a variety of habitats. However, human interventions sometimes have catastrophic impacts on wetlands. As nations celebrate World Wetlands Day, in this article, we examine the value of wetlands and the problems they face.

What are wetlands?

Wetlands are regions of inland or coastal land that experience permanent or seasonal saturation by water, such as during the growing season. These regions can be found in a variety of locations, such as coastlines, riverbanks and lake shores. While they are more common in boreal and tropical climates, temperate zones also have a variety of inland and coastal wetlands which include swamps, marshes, mangroves, and peatlands.

Wetland ecosystems are spread across the globe and can be found on every continent apart from Antarctica. Certain wetlands are lush, tree-filled swamps while others resemble flat, wet grasslands.

Types of wetlands

Wetlands come in a wide variety of types, and there are many ways to classify them. However, for easier understanding, according to National Geographic the majority of researchers categorize wetlands into three major groups: swamps, marshes and bogs.

What is a swamp?

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Swamps are wetlands with woody vegetation that is distinguished by particular types of trees and soil. Swamps serve as flood protection in areas with excessive seasonal precipitation. Saturated earth mixed with standing water results in soil that is rich in nutrients and thus ideal for the growth of shrubs and trees.

What is a marsh?

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A marsh is a type of wetland that often, or always, has water in it. As opposed to swamps, marshes are generally treeless and covered by grass and various herbaceous vegetation. Marshes are home to numerous aquatic invertebrates that feed on decomposing plant matter and thus support fish, snakes, water birds and mammals.

What is a bog?

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This type of wetland boasts low oxygen levels and an acidic environment because it develops when organic material accumulates more quickly than it decomposes. The biggest ‘donor’ of water for bogs is precipitation. Bogs have less nutrients in their mossy, spongy floors (compared to the marshes and bogs) and as a result of moss decomposition, acidic peat is created which is often used as fuel. The lack of nutrients does not allow plants to grow and only animals with unique adaptations, such as dragonflies and snakes, inhabit bogs.

The benefits of wetlands and why their destruction poses serious risks

A scenario when our planet lacks wetlands is hard to imagine but the recent evolution of wetland areas suggests that people are failing to consider the danger of their actions. Thus, according to some estimations, over the last 50 years, our planet has lost around 35% of wetland area, and the rate of degradation is increasing. Moreover, wetlands are actually dying three times quicker than trees.

Why does losing wetlands pose numerous risks linked to the future of the environment and humans? Some of the major problems associated with the loss of wetlands include:

1️⃣ Loss of biodiversity

A large number of various species of plants and animals can be found exclusively in wetlands and would risk extinction if these are destroyed.

2️⃣ Water purification

Wetlands serve as natural water filters that remove contaminants and extra nutrients from water before it reaches rivers, lakes and seas. Iin the absence of wetlands, water quality may deteriorate.

3️⃣ Flood control

During periods of heavy precipitation and snowmelt, wetlands behave as natural sponges, soaking up and decelerating the flow of water. This means that a lack of wetlands would cause floods to be much more intense and destructive.

4️⃣ Climate change

Despite taking up less space than forests, wetlands have an amazing ability to store carbon and are therefore crucial for controlling the climate of the planet. With this in mind, their absence facilitates global warming.

5️⃣ Economic losses

Wetlands are major suppliers of fish, lumber, and other items utilized by human society. They also promote tourism and leisure (hunting, hiking, canoeing). In the United States alone, over half of all adults spend nearly $60 billion on recreational activities like hunting, fishing and wildlife photography.

What can people do to save and restore wetlands?

In order to halt the rapid loss of wetlands and promote conservation and restoration efforts, it is vital to increase national and international knowledge of the importance of these ecosystems. The perfect moment to raise awareness of this is on World Wetlands Day, celebrated on February 2nd each year.

What exactly can be done?

1️⃣ Understand the dangers of wetlands disappearing

The issue: With the global population on the rise, urban areas continue to expand, sometimes into wetlands. At the same time, tree removal and the exploitation of bogs and peatlands for fuel are disturbing and degrading wetlands.

Possible solution: Adopting and expanding a policy that would preserve such areas might serve to solve this issue.

2️⃣ Worldwide commitment to cut emissions

The issue: Rising ocean levels caused by climate change can completely ‘swallow’ wetlands. For instance, rising sea levels and population expansion are advancing in the woods of the Sundarbans, the world’s biggest mangrove forest.

Possible solution:

  • In the long run, cutting emissions on a global scale and tackling climate change could help.
  • The short-term solutions include extending wetlands inland by putting down fresh sediment or using nature-based approaches in which regulated planting of fauna throughout wetlands would slow down the impact of increasing ocean water levels.
  • Revolutionary methods: ‘Smart gates‘ are able to counteract tidal inundation and could prevent seawater from rising to dangerously high levels.

What can ordinary people do?

Whether you live close to a wetland or reside in an area that is far from one, there are some actions you can take and habits you can adopt to help to preserve wetlands (and other ecosystems too).

  • Physically engage in initiatives that contribute to the protection and restoration of wetlands (restoring a damaged wetland’s structural, chemical, or biological properties in collaboration with various organizations)
  • Inform the authorities about unlawful activities such as illegal wetland filling or dredging
  • Clean up litter and place it in proper garbage receptacles
  • Plant native plants to help to protect the biological equilibrium of local wetlands
  • Consider phosphate-free chemicals (when doing laundry for instance). Phosphates lead to algae development which in turn suffocates sea life.
  • Avoid using toxic household cleaning solutions

Final word

Without doubt, wetlands are important ecosystems that help both the environment and society. And yet climate change, the growing population and expanding urban areas, along with high pollution levels, all pose a great threat to these ecosystems. With this in mind, we should consider protecting wetlands and conserving them not just for the benefit of the flora and fauna but also for the sake of our own well-being.