Wetlands: Rainforests of the North
Care2 Earth Month: Back to Basics
This year, Care2 decided to expand Earth Day into Earth Month, since there is so much to explore when it comes to the environment. Every day in April, we’ll have a post about some of the most important topics for the environment, exploring and explaining the basics. It’s a great tool to help you get started with helping the environment — or help explain it to others. See the whole series here.
What Are Wetlands?
If you break it down — wet-land — it might be obvious that we’re talking about a class of ecosystem that combines the properties of the terrestrial and the aquatic. Wetlands constitute land area which is either permanently or seasonally submerged with water. Wetlands typically have trees and other large land plants (adapted for dealing with submersion either continuously or at intervals) along with true aquatic plants.
Examples of wetlands include bogs, swamps, everglades and marshes. Wetlands can be found all over the world, in warm and temperate climates. Water depth of wetlands is generally shallower than true aquatic habitats like lakes or inland seas. Wetlands are generally comprised of stillwater.
What Are They Good For?
The title of this article may be slightly misleading, at least insofar as wetlands are not restricted to northern climes, or even the Northern Hemisphere. But wetlands, be they in South America, Great Britain, or in Canada, which holds one-quarter of the world’s wetlands, do rival tropical rainforests in terms of their biodiversity.
If you think about it for a moment, it will be obvious why this is true. Fish, crustaceans like crawfish, amphibians, all types of breeding and adult insects, a tremendous variety of plant life, and all types of waterfowl make wetlands their home. A highly interconnected web of very interdependent species, wetlands, more than tropical rainforests, also have strong ties to outside ecosystems. The surrounding ecosystems, in the case of breeding insects and amphibians, and much further afield, in the case of migratory birds.
Wetlands also provide a major role in weather and climate, providing water vapor to the atmosphere and acting as a carbon sink. They function as a natural water filtration system, removing pollutants, natural or man-made, from inflows. Where they exist on coastal areas, they protect the shoreline from erosion, by acting as a buffer between land and sea.
Threats and Consequences
Governments and private interests thoughtlessly drained wetlands for development during much of the twentieth century. The thinking was that a swamp, breeding-ground for mosquitoes and difficult to navigate, was no great loss to anyone. Though this attitude has changed in the last few decades, a lot of damage was already done. By 1993, half the world’s wetlands were gone.
The effects on water quality locally and a changing climate globally are hard to overstate. The more visible mascot for wetland protection, however, has been the threatened waterfowl. Ducks Unlimited, the foremost non-governmental wetland conservation organization, was started by duck hunters who saw for themselves the tremendous threat to these species as habitat was destroyed. This organization operates in all 50 US states and in Canada, which is critical.
Since these birds do migrate, it’s not enough to preserve some space here and there. All the countries and regions through which they pass on their migration route need to be on board. These birds can and will adapt to more limited habitat, resting in man-made lakes, or even on grass, during their trip. But finding the right food and rearing their young requires a certain minimum amount of habitat availability.
This is important for some of us who like to feed seeds to the ducks, as it is to hunters.
What You Can Do
Fortunately, perhaps due to their ubiquitous nature in countries all over the world, wetland conservation is the only type of ecosystem designated by international convention. If you live in North America, Ducks Unlimited is a great organization to support. It may have begun as an effort to preserve hunting stocks, but it’s grown far beyond that now.
The biggest human threat to wetlands is agricultural development. This is something to pressure your government representatives about when you get a heads-up from your favourite conservation organization. The World Wildlife Fund, those of us here at Care2, and any other environmental activist or advocacy organization you care to name can often give you a heads up before major development projects get underway.
Photo credit: Leveillem