Engineers, municipalities and governments around the world are just beginning to understand what hydrologists, limnologists and aquatic ecologists have known for a long time: that wetlands play a key role in maintaining the water cycle of our planet and that this role is directly related to disturbances related to climate change, flooding, pollution and toxicity.
Wetlands can significantly mitigate these perturbations and provide numerous other associated benefits, ten of which EarthShare, a site devoted to caring for the environment, has listed below:
- Wildlife Nursery. Because of its unique location between water and land, salt and freshwater, wetlands shelter more than one-third of the country’s threatened and endangered species, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Without wetlands, a huge number of songbirds, waterfowl, shellfish, mammals just wouldn’t exist.
- Flood Control. Wetlands function like a sponge, soaking up water that comes in with the tides, or from periodically flooding rivers. In fact, they control floods much more effectively and efficiently than any floodwall.
- Pollution Filter. If trees are the lungs of the planet, then wetlands are its kidneys. On the Rouge River near Detroit, Michigan, a wetland demonstration project showed significant reductions in nitrates, phosphorus, and heavy metals. Clean and plentiful drinking water depends on healthy wetlands.
- Storm Buffer. Scientists have estimated that every three miles of healthy wetlands could trim about one foot off a storm surge. For places like Louisiana, which have undergone tremendous erosion from oil and gas development and manmade levees, restoring and conserving wetlands is critical. In fact, wetlands provide $23.2 billion per year in storm protection services alone.
- Wind Buffer. A study co-authored by EarthShare member The Nature Conservancy showed that mangrove forests, which grow in wetlands and coastal areas, can reduce wind and swell waves, significantly; almost 100%, in fact, with 500 meters of forest!
- Fertile Farm Land. The staple diet of half the world’s population is rice, which grows in wetlands in many parts of the world. Many commercially important fish species, reeds and papyrus are also harvested in wetlands.
- Recreation and Tourism.Between bird watching, biking, hiking, and kayaking, wetlands provide people with many ways to enjoy nature. That’s why EarthShare California member Save the Bay is deploying thousands of volunteers to rehabilitate the wetlands around San Francisco.
- Carbon Sink. Because the soils found in wetlands can store carbon for hundreds of years, they play an important role in fighting climate change.
- Jobs Hub. US coastal regions provide 40% of the country’s employment: more than 69 million jobs in sectors like trade, hospitality, and commercial fishing. Restoring wetlands also provides many jobs. A study from the Center for American Progress found that for every $1 million invested in coastal restoration, 17.1 jobs were created.
- Sea Level Rise Mitigation. By 2100, New York City could witness sea level rise of up to six feet. For those living within this rapidly expanding flood zone, wetlands will provide a critical buffer. That’s why the city is supporting programs like MARSHES, a 68-acre “wetland mitigation bank” on Staten Island.
Wetlands in the United States
EarthShare recently reported that 50% of US wetlands had been destroyed by 2015 “to development, misguided engineering projects, agriculture, and fossil fuel development.” They reported that wetland loss is as high as 90% in California.
Wetlands in Canada
“Estimates on wetland loss indicate that up to 70 per cent of wetlands have been lost or degraded in settled areas of Canada,” writes Ducks Unlimited. They provide the example of Lake Winnipeg’s organic pollution and algal problem resulting from insufficient buffer from wetlands. “These algae blooms [in Lake Winnipeg] are a symptom of increased nutrients delivered from upstream watersheds. In many cases, these watersheds have endured significant wetland drainage, allowing nutrients to flow into major lakes and rivers without the benefit of the natural filtration of wetland systems.”
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.