Wetlands are one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated ecosystems on Earth. Many people see them as wastelands – soggy, mosquito-infested swamps that are obstacles to development and progress. But wetlands are invaluable environments that provide critical services and benefits to both wildlife and humans. It's time we recognize the immense value of wetlands and prioritize protecting them.
What Are Wetlands?
Before diving into why wetlands matter, it's important to understand what defines a wetland. Wetlands are areas where water covers the soil or sits near the surface for at least part of the year. They are transition zones between dry land and open water bodies like rivers, lakes, and oceans. Marshes, swamps, bogs, fens, prairie potholes, and floodplains are all types of wetlands.
Wetlands can have fresh, salty, or brackish water. The water level in wetlands can fluctuate naturally with seasons or tides. Unique wetland plants and soils have adapted to the wet conditions. While wetlands cover only about 5-8% of the Earth's land surface, they have an outsized impact on ecosystems.
The Incredible Benefits Wetlands Provide
So why do we need wetlands? Here are some of the most important benefits and services wetlands provide:
Wetlands act as nature's kidneys, filtering pollutants and sediments out of water. As water flows through wetlands, plants and soils trap excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer runoff. Chemicals like pesticides are also filtered out. Many pollutants are broken down and transformed into less toxic substances by microbes in the wetlands.
Wetlands can remove about 60-90% of metals like copper and lead and 70-90% of suspended solids from water. This makes wetlands incredibly effective at improving water quality - often more effective than wastewater treatment plants. Protecting wetlands is a cost-effective way to filter water naturally before it enters streams, rivers, lakes or oceans.
Wetlands are biodiversity hotspots, providing critical habitat for thousands of species. They are some of the most productive ecosystems on Earth. Over 190 amphibian species and one third of bird species in the U.S. rely on wetlands.
Freshwater wetlands provide spawning grounds and nurseries for over 75% of America's fish and shellfish. They are especially important habitat for rare and endangered species - at least one third of threatened or endangered species live only in wetlands. Many other animals like alligators, moose, and black bears also depend on wetlands for food and shelter.
Natural Flood Control
Wetlands act like giant sponges, absorbing and slowly releasing flood waters. This reduces peak flood heights and downstream flood damage. Wetlands help recharge groundwater supplies when floodwaters recede. In coastal areas, wetlands can act as buffers to reduce erosion and property damage from storms and hurricanes.
It's estimated that a single acre of wetland can store 1-1.5 million gallons of floodwater. When wetlands are drained or developed, communities lose this free flood protection service. The result is increased risk of flooding and the need for expensive levees and control structures.
Wetlands are excellent carbon sinks - their soils and vegetation can sequester and store large amounts of carbon instead of releasing it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Although wetlands cover a small part of the Earth's surface, they store between 20-30% of global soil carbon.
Protecting wetlands is an important nature-based climate solution. When wetlands are drained and converted to other uses, huge reserves of carbon are released. Restoring degraded wetlands can reverse this process. Healthy, intact wetlands keep carbon locked away securely.
Recreation & Education
Wetlands allow people to connect with nature through recreation like birdwatching, fishing, hunting, and photography. They provide beautiful scenery and open spaces that support mental health. Wetlands also offer living laboratories to educate students of all ages about ecology, hydrology, botany, and biology.
Research shows that spending time in nature reduces stress and improves cognitive skills. Wetlands give people abundant opportunities to experience nature close to home. Protecting wetlands means ensuring these recreational and educational benefits exist for both current and future generations.
Threats Facing Wetlands Today
With all their immense value, why are wetlands still at risk? Half of the wetlands in the U.S. alone have been lost since European settlement. Around the world, wetlands are threatened by:
Development - Wetlands are often drained, dredged, or filled for construction projects. Coastal development and port expansion claim huge areas of tidal wetlands.
Pollution - Runoff from urban areas, farms, and industry degrades water quality. Oil spills and plastic waste harm wetlands. Nutrient pollution causes harmful algal blooms.
Invasive species - Invasive plants like phragmites and carp disrupt native wetland ecosystems. Climate change aids their spread.
Climate change - Rising seas, erosion, drought, and extreme weather alter wetland hydrology.
Draining and ditching - Wetlands around the world have been drained and converted to agricultural land or development. Ditching wetlands alters hydrology and degrades habitat. In the U.S., over 50 million acres of wetlands have been drained.
Groundwater depletion - Excessive groundwater pumping lowers water tables and deprives wetlands of water. Agricultural irrigation is a major cause of groundwater overdraft in many regions.
Dams and water diversions - Dams, dikes, and water diversions reduce flows in rivers that feed wetlands. Hydrologic changes degrade or destroy wetlands downstream.
Mining - Mining for peat, coal, minerals, and gravel destroys wetlands and releases stored carbon. Acid mine drainage pollutes downstream wetlands.
Overharvesting - Overfishing, overhunting, and overharvesting of wetland plants imbalances ecosystems. For example, overharvesting marsh grasses like phragmites impacts habitat.
Fire suppression - Preventing natural fires allows shrubs and trees to invade open wetlands. This degrades habitat for specialized wetland species.
Lack of legal protection - Many wetlands lack legal protections or are not properly monitored and enforced. Loopholes in regulations like the Clean Water Act put wetlands at risk.
Protecting remaining wetlands and restoring damaged ones is crucial. But first, more people need to recognize the immense value of wetlands and the consequences if they are lost.
Take Action to Protect Wetlands
Wetlands clearly provide immense value - from water filtration to wildlife habitat to flood control and recreation. They are biodiversity hotspots and carbon sinks that regulate global climate and provide ecosystem services worth trillions of dollars per year.
Yet wetlands remain critically threatened around the world. The recent United Nations IPCC report named wetland conservation as an urgent priority for climate change adaptation and resilience.
Here are some ways you can help protect wetlands in your own community and globally:
- Learn more about local wetlands and educate others on why they are important
- Volunteer for wetland restoration and cleanup projects
- Avoid developing or disturbing wetland areas on your property
- Support organizations advocating for stronger wetland protections
- Call on your elected representatives to fund wetland conservation programs
- Make sustainable choices to reduce your personal water, energy, and consumer impacts
The future of wetlands is in our hands. With greater awareness and engagement from the public, we can ensure these invaluable ecosystems are conserved for generations to come. Although protecting wetlands poses challenges, the benefits far outweigh the costs. Our health, our wildlife, and our climate depend on it.