Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: Are Wetlands Saving Us from a Changing Climate?

It is a good news~bad news week for wetlands and climate change following the close of the Durban Climate Change Summit.  The good news is that for the first time there is an incentive for restoring and protecting peatlands included in an international agreement addressing climate change.

The bad news is that other contributions from other kinds of wetlands are not included.

Peatlands occur from the tropics to the arctic and drained peatlands are a significant source of carbon accounting for 6% of the global carbon emissions.  Carbon contributions from peatlands occur in part in response to drainage of these wetlands for agriculture and forestry.  Rewetting these soils can stop carbon emissions and prevent peat fires.

Wetlands International and other organizations have worked hard to get consideration of peatlands, both their loss and their restoration, included as part of international agreements to address climate change.  This is great work, but there are also millions of acres of other wetlands that have enormous potential to capture carbon.   Protection and restoration of these wetlands could also be essential to mitigating and reducing the adverse impacts of climate change while delivering a host of other benefits including clean water, abundant wildlife and reduced floods, droughts, and hurricane damage.

One area receiving increasing attention is blue carbon, a term used to describe mangroves, seagrasses and salt marshes that can all act as carbon sinks.

But there are many other wetland types that are being overlooked in development of national and international protocols for addressing climate change and some intriguing new research suggests they really should be.

Historically, one of the major concerns about using wetlands to store carbon is that wetlands also generate methane, another harmful greenhouse gas.  However, I recently listened to a fascinating webinar by Dr. Bill Mitsch from The Ohio University.  The title of the talk was “Climate Change and the Great Lakes” but the second half of the presentation dealt with wetlands and climate change on the international scale.  Dr. Mitsch is finding that created and restored wetlands in mineralized soils store an amazing amount of carbon, enough to easily offset concerns about methane emissions when considered over a long time period—100 to 200 years.

Scientists worldwide continue to work hard to develop a more detailed understanding of how fast climate is changing.  One mystery has been about missing carbon.  According to estimates of how much carbon and other greenhouse gases are released to the atmosphere, climate change should be much worse than it is.  But it’s not.  Less than half of the total carbon emitted each year remains in the atmosphere.  Where is it going?  There is speculation that it is absorbed by natural systems.  Dr. Mitsch’s research, the accumulated knowledge of 25 years of work, raises the very real possibility that the world’s wetlands could be the lost carbon sink.  Much more research needs to be done, and it should be done as soon as possible.  Wetland destruction and alteration continues throughout the world and these activities could shut down the natural world’s most important sink for carbon.  The consequences of continued ignorance about the role of wetlands in moderating climate change is enormous.  It is past time to pay attention to the role of all wetlands in protecting the planet Earth.

Climate Change and Great Lake Wetlands (Dr. William Mitsch)

Additional resources:

The case of the missing carbon (National Geographic Magazine)
Restore America’s Estuaries Wetland Carbon Blog
Blue Carbon Portal
Wetlands International

Can ‘Carbon Ranching’ Offest Emmission in California (National Public Radio, December 7, 2011)
State Wetland Climate Change Adaptation Summaries

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One Response to The Compleat Wetlander: Are Wetlands Saving Us from a Changing Climate?

  1. Scott says:

    All this time I thought I was the only Wetlander. Google alerts show me otherwise. Hello, fellow Wetlander.

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