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From supporting a host of animal and plant life to mitigating climate change and protecting humans from floods, the importance of wetlands cannot be downplayed.
Wetlands offer various valuable functions such as purifying water, recycling nutrients, recharging groundwater, and attenuating floods. They also provide drinking water, control runoff rates in urban areas, offer habitat to wildlife while also buffering shorelines against soil erosion.
There’s a reason why the entire globe celebrates World Wetlands Day on February 2nd each year: to protect the incredible biodiversity and importance of wetlands. Besides supporting various animal and plant life, they’re crucially important for the survival of humans too. Given their importance as nature’s shock absorbers, it’s important to learn more about them. In this article, you’ll learn what a wetland is, various types of wetlands, their components, their importance, underlying threats, and how to conserve wetlands.
Given the importance of wetlands to nature and the well-being of animals, plants, and humans, it was very easy for me to access reliable information on everything regarding the wetlands. To ensure that the information provided herein is trustworthy and reliable, I derived most of it from authoritative websites such as Ramsar, United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), The National Park Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Why are Wetlands Important?
Nearly a century ago, wetlands were seen as wastelands, which was good for the environment. But as development took over, most of these wetlands were destroyed by various human activities. Today, just 110 million acres of wetlands remain, which is alarming given that over 220 million acres of wetlands existed in the U.S. in the 1600s! But with the weather-related hazards and the effects of climate change, we need our wetlands now more than ever. In this section, we’ll look at the importance of wetlands.
Environmental Importance of Wetlands
Here are the environmental benefits of having and maintaining our wetlands.
Wetlands offer a Lifeline to Plants, Fish, and Wildlife
As one of the most biodiverse habitats in the world, wetlands are known to provide habitat to over 40% of plants, fish, and wildlife in the world. Wetlands not only provide homes for some of the world’s most endangered species but more than 200 new species are discovered every year in wetlands!
Over 80% of the bird population in the U.S. hugely depends on wetlands to survive. Other species such as frogs and toads would be extinct were it not for these wetlands. In essence, wetlands provide a lifeline for various birds and wildlife and that’s why even the most endangered species are only found in wetlands.
Wetlands Help in Mitigating Climate Change
Climate change is one of the most pressing problems in the world today. This could also be a result of wetlands being destroyed by various human activities. Well, wetlands play an integral role in slowing down climate change. This is because they naturally absorb and store massive amounts of carbon, which is essential in reducing the impacts of climate change.
According to studies, wetlands can store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests combined. This is why wetlands are the most effective places on earth in sinking carbon.
Wetlands Help in Improving Water Quality
In addition to holding the available freshwater, wetlands are known to improve water quality by naturally filtering out pollutants. This is because the flow rate of water will decrease in wetlands, which then allows various particles and pollutants to settle out. Again, various plants in the wetlands act as filters by absorbing solids while adding much-needed oxygen to the water. In short, these plants play a critical role in cleansing water.
In essence, wetlands are important in improving water quality by removing about 90% of nitrogen and about 60% of metals in water. This is essential not just to mankind but also to plants and wildlife. You should keep in mind that only 1% of fresh water in the world is usable and most of these are found in wetlands.
Wetlands Help in Controlling Floods
The fact that wetlands can absorb heavy rains, hold on to the water, and release it gradually is essential in controlling floods. Wetlands can also stabilize riverbanks and shorelines by maintaining groundwater levels and downstream water flows during low and high rainfalls. Wetlands are also important in buffering storm surges.
Importance of Wetlands to Mankind
While the above-mentioned benefits of wetlands are also important to mankind, let’s look at some of the direct benefits of wetlands to mankind.
Wetlands Support Livelihoods
Besides being essential to human health and prosperity, wetlands have supported livelihoods for centuries. From Mississippi to the Nile and the Mekong, it’s a known fact that civilizations began around wetlands. This is because wetlands can provide not just water and food but also transport and leisure.
To put it into perspective, over a billion people in the world depend on wetlands to support their livelihoods. For example, more than half of the world’s population depends on rice and other staple diets that are grown in wetlands. Again, over 50% of tourists around the world visit various wetlands across the world, thereby offering millions of jobs in these areas.
Wetlands Promote Health and Well-being
Studies indicate that spending time in nature, particularly wetlands, is essential in promoting good health and our overall well-being. In addition to helping human beings recuperate and escape from the stresses of their daily lives, wetlands offer some sense of peace. If you spend time in wetlands, you’ll feel less depressed, less stressed and your anxiety levels will reduce.
Historical Importance of Wetlands
Wetlands are a treasure trove for many American natives. They use materials from the wetlands to manufacture various things such as clothes, mats, beddings, and many more. They also consider these places sacred not just as a way of transportation but as a good source of food and their livelihoods.
Recreation and Education Importance of Wetlands
From boating, fishing, swimming, hunting, white baiting to bird watching, wetlands offer endless recreation opportunities. The fact that they’re home to a wide array of plants and animal species makes them interesting education centers not just for the current generation but also for generations to come.
Threats, Loss, and Degradation of Wetlands
According to the EPA, more than 220 million acres of wetlands existed in the lower states of the country in the 1600s. Unfortunately, these wetlands have been under constant threat from human activities. These extensive losses mean that the United States has lost more than half of its original wetlands. In fact, major national wetlands were degraded between 1950 and 1970. Although the rate of degradation has slowed down, let’s look at some of the major threats to our wetlands.
Human activities such as agriculture and development have led to changes in the hydrologic conditions of wetlands. This is because any change in the hydrologic conditions of wetlands can significantly affect not just the soil chemistry of a particular area but also the plant and animal communities of that area. Some of the activities that affect the hydrologic conditions of these areas include:
- Creation of ponds and lakes through diking and damming
- Drainage of the wetlands for development and mosquito control
- Deposition of fill materials for development
- Diverting water flow to or from wetlands
As we noted earlier, one of the benefits of wetlands is their capability to absorb carbon or pollutants from the surface of the water. However, they have limits, which if exceeded, can cause degradation to the wetlands. The pollutant inputs in wetlands originate from many sources and here are some of them:
- Pollutants from marinas and boats
- Runoff from urban areas, mining, and agricultural areas
- Toxic substances and leaks from old landfills
- Air pollution from industries, cars, and power plants
- Human sewage, animal waste, fertilizers, heavy metals, pesticides, and many more
Wetlands can also be damaged if non-native vegetation is introduced to the areas. Other activities may also include overgrazing and the removal of native vegetation for peat mining.