A World Without Wetlands
It’s hard to fully appreciate things in the moment, until they are just about to leave us. This bittersweet tinge of regret is a lesson we learn throughout our lives, and one that I repeatedly forget. Our generation (confronted with an array of planetary crises afoot) will have this demonstrated to us time and time again, as we are forced to settle the debts for the devaluing of nature–intended or unintended–owed by those before us.
Take coral reefs. Each one is an underwater rainforest constructed over millennia, crafted by forces imperceptible to the human eye, and spread across distances the size of continents. A marvel to behold and vehemently protect. However, regardless of the growing clamor of today, these natural wonders face the precipice of a now, seemingly inevitable, carbon-caused annihilation.
Imagine, for a moment, that we can buck this trend of postmortem appreciation and get ahead of the curve. A curve now bending unrelentingly towards another ecological marvel: wetlands. For a moment, let us appreciate wetlands, their immense impact, and what it would be like to inhabit our world without this priceless ecosystem.
Cumberland Island National Seashore.
Source: “Wetlands”, National Park Service Media, National Park Service, 13th March 2006, https://www.nps.gov/media/photo/view.htm?id=5891581C-1DD8-B71C-0773C68DCD495E09.
To understand their importance, we should define what a wetland is. According to the 168-country Ramsar Convention, a wetland is any land area that is “saturated or flooded with water, either seasonally or permanently”. These flooded areas create watery and low-oxygen soil that is dominated by water-loving vegetation known as “hydrophytes”. Due to the variety of wetland habitats, you likely have, at some point, been in a wetland without realizing. Inland wetlands include aquifers, lakes, rivers, streams, marshes, peatlands, ponds, flood plains, and swamps. Their coastal counterparts include coastlines, mangroves, salt marshes, estuaries, lagoons, seagrass meadows, and coral reefs.
The diversity of wetland habitat types have a cascading effect on the larger biosphere. As water ebbs and flows through a wetland ecosystem, nutrients are released, and wetland plants turn sunlight into sugar at an incredible rate. Salt marshes, for example, are among the most productive ecosystems on earth. The energy provided by wetlands support a high concentration of life. Insects, mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, and fish utilize the calm waters of wetlands as nurseries or breeding grounds. During the seasonal migrations of birds and mammals, wetlands serve as feeding and rest areas essential to the completion of their journeys. Within the United States, about one-third of all threatened or endangered plant and animal species depend on wetlands for their survival.
Denali National Park and Preserve.
Source: “Mckinley Bar Trail”, National Park Service Media, Emily Mesner, National Park Service, 5th August 2017, https://www.nps.gov/media/photo/view.htm?id=98066375-5901-4892-bc2b-5dc94cf2a829
As humans, it’s easy to forget that we are not separate, but rather highly dependent upon, this flow of life existing within wetland habitats. Wetlands are not just nurseries of animal and plant life, but of humanity itself. The ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, and Aztecs all leveraged the natural power of wetlands to develop, sustain and grow their populations. Chicago, Washington D.C., and Paris are just a few of the modern cities that expanded with the help of the wetland resources they were built upon.
Wetlands benefit humans by acting as resource providers and ecosystem regulators. Wetlands provide humans with food (waterfowl, fish, and shellfish), building supplies (peat and timber), fiber (vegetation), and genetic resources (refuges for threatened and endangered species). As ecosystem regulators, wetlands mitigate flooding (slowing storm runoff and absorbing the fury of ocean storm surges), recharge aquifers, improve water quality, and regulate our climate (sequestering more carbon per acre than any other ecosystem on earth). To put it into terms that we best understand, while acknowledging the fact that the true value of natural systems can never be assessed, the annual value wetlands provide to the world is estimated to be $125 trillion to $145 trillion.
The Aral Sea at its full extent in 1964.
Source: “The Aral Sea, Before The Streams Ran Dry”, NASA Visible Earth, NASA, Acquired 22nd August 1964 and Published 24th February 2012, https://visibleearth.nasa.gov/images/77193/the-aral-sea-before-the-streams-ran-dry/77193f.
What would it be like to erase this priceless ecosystem? To peer into our potential future, we need to look into the past: to one of the greatest environmental disasters of the 20th century. The Aral Sea (see image above) was once the fourth largest lake in the world and the main freshwater source for the populations of five countries: Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In the 1950s, the Soviet Union canalized large amounts of water from the Aral Sea’s inflowing rivers to farm cotton and grow other cash crops. According to NATO, this diversion set in motion the drying of the Aral Sea and its wetlands “[causing] salinization, the disappearance of native fish species, the loss of a major fishery, and as the sea dried out, dust and salt storms”. Without the large sea to moderate the climate of the region, “the climate changed and productive farmland was lost, while toxic materials were being deposited and the health conditions of communities deteriorated as the quality of drinking water became poorer”. Now existing at only 50% of its original surface area, and with its local fishing communities devastated, the sea has lost 95% of its surrounding wetlands and reservoirs to the desert.
The last remnants of the Aral Sea in 2003.
Source: “The Aral Sea”, NASA Visible Earth, NASA, 2003, https://visibleearth.nasa.gov/images/68762/aral-sea.
Accessed 7th May 2021
The vanishing act of the Aral Sea is a warning to us by the wetlands of the world. Since 1900, nearly 64% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared. The causes are myriad, but four common themes typify wetland degradation: land-use change for agriculture, water diversion through dams and canals, water pollution, and infrastructure development in river valleys and along coastlines. It is easy to guilt ourselves into thinking that we as a species should have known better or could have done better during the last explosive century of human development. While there is some harsh truth in that, only in the last few decades, a mere blip on the 70,000-year scale of modern human existence, has an international widespread appreciation of wetlands come about. For example, The Ramsar Convention itself (now a symbol of the value humans around the world place upon wetlands), was only signed in 1971.
The problem of wetland destruction is one made by humans, and, as a result, can be stopped and reversed by humans as well. Wetland loss is not inevitably paired with economic development, and these ecosystems can still be conserved and restored. It will be difficult to move on from more than 100 years of wetland mistreatment, degradation, and destruction, but we have no alternative. If we act intentionally upon our growing environmental consciousness, as individuals, communities, countries, and as a planet, then we may just give ourselves a chance of never having to live in a world without wetlands.
Coixet, Isabel. “Aral. The Lost Sea.” We Are Water Foundation, www.wearewater.org/en/aral-the-lost-sea_253307.
“Fact Sheet 3-Wetlands: a global disappearing act”. Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Ramsar Convention Secretariat, 20 November 2015, https://www.ramsar.org/sites/default/files/documents/library/factsheet3_global_disappearing_act_0.pdf
“Global Wetland Outlook: State of the World’s Wetlands and their Services to People”. Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Ramsar Convention Secretariat, 2018, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b256c78e17ba335ea89fe1f/t/5b9ffd2e0e2e7277f629eb8f/1537211739585/RAMSAR+GWO_ENGLISH_WEB.pdf#:~:text=Wetland%20plants%20and%20animals%20are,species%20at%20risk%20of%20extinction.&text=Quality%20of%20remaining%20wetlands%20is,flow%20regimes%20and%20climate%20change.
Mitsch, William J., and James G. Gosselink. Wetlands, 5th Edition. John Wiley & Sons, 2015.
NATO On-Line Library: Water - a Key Security Asset, 2005 www.nato.int/docu/water/html_en/water05.html.
“Reef Threats.” Coral Reef Alliance, 2021, coral.org/coral-reefs-101/reef-threats/#:~:text=As%20much%20as%20one%2Dthird,high%20to%20critical%20threat%20levels.&text=The%20Coral%20Reef%20Alliance%20(CORAL,global%20to%20address%20reef%20threats.
“Why Are Wetlands Important?” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 5 May 2016,www.nps.gov/subjects/wetlands/why.htm#:~:text=Habitat%20for%20Threatened%20and%20Endangered,iris%20and%20several%20orchid%20species.