Wetlands are critical to our biodiversity and the protection of wetlands is essential. Before examining the effects of the loss of wetlands, it is important to give a definition of wetlands and provide an overview of what they are, where wetlands exist, and why wetlands are important. With the exception of Antarctica, wetlands can be found nearly everywhere and are generally found in the form of bogs, swamps, marshes, and fens. Although wetlands can vary widely as a result of geological, climactic, and geographical differences, generally speaking, “wetlands are lands where saturation with water is the dominant factor determining the nature of soil development and the types of plant and animal communities living in the soil and on its surface” (EPA 1995).
These wetlands are home to large numbers of both terrestrial and amphibious organisms and are often key areas during breeding seasons as representative species from across the food chain are collected in the soil and marshy land. Several variations of plant life exist only in wetlands and many varieties of migratory birds breed and rest in these fertile areas. In wetlands, small shellfish, crabs, and other aquatic life thrive and serve as food to land-dwelling animals. In sum, wetlands serve as a mini-ecosystem and without such areas; populations of countless species would be threatened. The loss of wetlands poses dangers to wildlife as well as human populations both in terms of protection of terrain and in a broader economic sense. Although efforts to stop the rapid loss of wetlands have been a relatively recent development, it is vital that efforts continue or problems already faced could be made much worse. In any discussion about the loss of wetlands it should be stated that there is always going to be a chain reaction. The damage or loss of one aspect of wetlands does not just have an impact on that particular issue, but has more far-reaching consequences that have a great and often devastating effect on human and animal populations as well as the ecosystem as a whole.
Until recently, there were several incentives for wetland drainage, particularly for industrial and agricultural purposes. Common actions such as dredging, construction, the creation of levees and dikes, as well as simple chemical contamination have led too a massive decrease in the number of wetlands. “In the 1600s, over 220 million acres of wetlands are thought to have existed in the lower 48 states. Since then, extensive losses have occurred, and over half our original wetlands have been drained and converted to other uses. Between the 1950s and 1970s an estimated 58.500 acres of wetlands were lost” (EPA 1995). This loss, particularly since the 1950s, has already resulted in increased flooding and drainage problems as well as the more predictable effects on native wildlife populations. In addition to the human factors impacting the loss of wetlands, environmental events also have an effect on the declining numbers, particularly when one factors in the increasing temperature which is the result of global warming.
Aside from the rising sea levels which take over wetlands, droughts, hurricanes, and general erosion are also partly to blame for the decrease. While the cause for wetland losses worldwide vary, it is clear that human activity, at least as it has been recorded in the United States in terms of pollution and climate change has had the greatest impact. While natural events may worsen the losses, it is increasingly important that humans recognize the significant benefits of these areas in terms of aquatic biodiversity and the human benefits they offer with regards to both the landscape and economy. Still, one of the most current and pressing threats faced with this loss is the dwindling of species that are native to and can only survive in wetlands.
In the wetlands that are still thriving, a visitor could expect to see one of the broadest ranges of biodiversity that exists outside of Earth’s oceans. Part of the reason for this is because there are thousands of species that cannot exist in any other setting and as a result, the loss of wetlands could mean the endangerment of already threatened organisms. Currently, wetlands are home to one of the largest collections of biodiversity to be found on the planet with a staggering number both microorganisms, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds, and mammals that either live within or near the waters. These diverse species are part of the vital food chain and in many ways, function as they own separate ecosystem entirely.
The food provided by the tiny and smaller organisms attract a large number of other species and all of this is sustained by the rich loamy material that is comprised of dead, waterlogged leaves and other organic material. In addition, scientists have lately come to realize that the biological function of wetlands is also useful in combating climate change since wetlands harbor carbon within the plants (which is a feature of many wetlands greenery) which means it is not released back into the air in the from of carbon dioxide. As a result, the ecosystem as whole is aided by the existence of such wetlands and the species that are dependent upon them have a greater chance of future survival. Furthermore, according to researchers, “Biodiversity should include four levels: heredity diversity; species diversity, ecosystem diversity, and landscape diversity” (Hong-Yu 2000). As wetlands are destroyed, these four vital factors of biodiversity are also destroyed. Since hereditary and species diversity depend on having suitable breeding grounds, if wetlands were no longer present this would of course be two keys to biodiversity that no longer exist. With the loss of these comes the added loss of ecosystem diversity because wetlands function as their own ecosystem independently and then go on to effect birds, the climate, and other factors. Finally, landscape diversity would be affected as the natural cycles of wetland plants are interrupted and animals move from the area. Without wetlands, landscape diversity would not exist as the only wet places would be near rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans. In general, everything about wetlands functions in a chain. When one aspect is lost, others necessarily are as well. This has already occurred to some degree in a few wetlands and as a result, species have either died out or have become extinct in particular areas where they used to thrive.
Human populations are also suffering as a result of the gradual loss of wetlands and it seems as though their importance has been overlooked. For instance, wetlands offer one of the best natural protections against flooding since they act as giant pads that soak up the excess rain and surface water. Because of the natural topography of wetlands, this absorbed water is evenly distributed over a large expanse and is almost immediately sucked into the ground where it feeds wetland plants that are specially suited to being either completely or partially submerged. In addition to this, the height of the ground is leveled and erosion is either halted or slowed. This action is even more important to have near large cities because they absorb the high degree of runoff. It is equally useful in agricultural areas where drainage is nearly always a problem which is sometimes even further compounded by the dredging operations that were meant to assist with the problem. Wetlands are also vital near large bodies of water as they help minimize the amount of erosion and take in the energy of waves as well as change the currents near rivers or fast-moving streams. Aside from these more geographical benefits to wetlands, they also influence the quality of drinking water supplies since they absorb many contaminants that find their way into groundwater. Once the water comes through wetlands, the large variety of specialized and native wetlands plants absorb some of the nutrients but also soak up many damaging chemicals that come from agriculture and other sources. This can have an overall effect on the need for water treatment plants, which are incredibly expensive and can require even more damage to local environments.
Wetlands do not just assist human populations with drinking water and flood control and flood or hurricane damage reduction; they also serve as an important element of the economy. The loss of these vital wetlands can have a devastating impact on the future of the world markets. Many industries are entirely reliant on the existence of wetlands including growers of blueberries, cranberries, wild rice, and certain trees for wood. The pharmaceutical industry would also suffer since a number of important medicines come from derivatives of plants and organisms that can only exist in marshy conditions. Shellfish and other fisheries also rely on wetlands and in places with a high concentration of market dependence on wetlands such as America’s southeast, the loss of these resources could be devastating. For example, “Louisiana’s coastal marshes produce an annual commercial fish and shellfish harvest that amounted to 1.2 billion pounds worth $244 million in 1991” (Constanza 1997).
Although this data is not recent and does not reflect the damages caused by Hurricane Katrina, it is still a vital statistic when considering the economic value of wetlands, both coastal and otherwise. Wetlands can also be found in a number of wildlife refuges, as well as state and natural parks and are a vital part of the tourism industry. With all of these combined factors influencing the economy, it is necessary that the loss of wetlands is halted as soon as possible. In many ways, it seems that one way to halt the destruction of wetlands is to offer incentives based on economic ideas since individuals and organizations are more likely to save these resources if their bottom lines are impacted. With this in mind, a number of incentives, both federal and local, have been introduced to halt the decay of wetlands. The key principle behind these efforts rides on the notion of free market environmentalism, which “relies on market forces for environmental management… This approach to the environmental management of agriculture, and especially its conservations efforts, is representative of the next generation of agricultural policy” (Luzar 1999). While this has been a dominant trend in the agricultural sector, it could also be applied to other industries as well. The sooner those with economic interests realize the importance of wetlands to the economy, the sooner the destruction could cease.
Generally speaking, if wetlands were lost at a greater rate, there could be incredibly significant impacts to both human and wildlife populations. The ecosystem as well as human systems (most notably the economy) would suffer greatly. Wetlands loss has already resulted in dwindling numbers of a variety of species and this in turn has had an impact on the food chain and thus other related species. What is most significant about wetlands loss is that it is a chain reaction. There is no aspect of the losses that has an impact on just one factor—everything is related in a series of complex ways. Although this is a frightening prospect, it should be understood that the loss of wetlands is not a trend that will inevitably continue, even with the changes that are occurring within them as a result of global climate change. Recent efforts to stop practices that discourage the existence of wetlands (which are often seen as undesirable for aesthetic as well as practical reasons) have been successful but might not be enough. A new effort that seeks to create and restore ecosystems, also known as mitigation or ecological engineering, has the potential to “provide opportunities for enhancing the ecosystem services to humans, which have been estimated to provide the equivalent of $33 trillion per year worldwide” (Costanza 1997). Mitigation efforts have the potential to bring back the four components of biodiversity discussed above and over time, along with greater understanding of the wide range of benefits associated with wetlands, might eventually restore wetlands to near their pre-1950 levels. One of the best tools for achieving the goal of wetlands restoration is convincing individuals and businesses of their economic value. Unfortunately, few still seem to know about wetlands and view them as undesirable marshes that attract mosquitoes and other unwanted pests. This is not land that can easily be built upon either and thus it is even more stigmatized as an unnecessary geographical feature. While environmentalists try to get the message out about the value of wetlands and the biodiversity they offer, it might make more of an impact to discuss the way wetlands contribute to the economy since it seems like a more immediate and pressing issue.
Other essays and articles in the Main Archives related to this topic include: The Contributions of the United States to Global Warming & Climate Change • An Argument Against Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) • An Overview of Types of Marine Sediments
Costanza R, et al. 1997. The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature 387: 253-260.
Hong-yu, L. (2000). Landscape planning and ecology construction of wetland comprehensive protected area system in the Sanjiang Plain. Journal of Environmental Sciences, 12(3), 361.
Luzar. (1999). Participation in the next generation of agriculture conservation programs: The role of…Journal of Socio-Economics, 28(3), 335.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 1995b. America’s wetlands: Our vital link between land and water.Office of Water, Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds. EPA843-K-95-001.