... It's a tremendous issue in the world of telmatology as more people deny climate change, more developers buy up and decimate wetlands for waterfront residential development, and wetlands continue to disappear. Want to know more about wetlands, you're in the right place!
Disclaimer: all scientific information in this article was published directly in, or referenced within the current issue (fifth edition) of Wetlands by Mitsch and Gossenlink.
What is a wetland? That’s a difficult question to answer. Wetlands, by their very nature, are nearly impossible to define. Because of this, managing and researching wetlands effectively and efficiently has proved incredibly difficult ever since we started attempting this feat (around the late 1960’s).
What is it that makes a wetland so difficult to delineate, I mean, isn’t it all in the name… It’s land, that’s wet? Well kind of, but it’s a lot more than that. Wetlands are important transitional zones, which are also referred to as ecotones. Wetlands branch the gap between high productivity, carbon source terrestrial landscapes and low productivity, carbon sink aquatic landscapes. They are important storm surge buffers, water quality improvers, pollution filters, animal nurseries, carbon and nitrogen fixers or transformers, erosion preventers, so very much more. Additionally, wetlands vary dramatically in size, shape, geomorphology, hydrology, and salinity, etc. This makes coming up with one standard, all encompassing definition very hard.
So now you may be asking, why is it even important that we have one definition to cover all wetland types? Why can’t we just give coastal salt marshes, peat bogs, riparian wetlands, prairie potholes, and pocosins entirely different definitions and leave it at that? Well, we sort of already do, and describing wetland categories is important in its own right, but there is one thing that simply begs for a single definition: the law. Policy/law makers want a clear picture of what a wetland is, what it does, and why it’s important before they can really support legislation that is working to protect them. Many policy makers are not scientists, wetland managers, or even developers; they may have little to no scientific background, so it’s important that we create a definition that will convey wetlands accurately and briefly. Many have tried but we have yet to really strike gold. Currently, the accepted research definition was written by the US Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries, and the accepted management/policy definition is the US Army Corp of Engineers and/or the Ramsar definitions.
Wetland management is a tricky field, mostly because we have lost a tremendous amount of them and have attempted to replace them by building ponds. It may not surprise basically ANYONE that a one acre pond is not an effective replacement for a vast, ancient coastal salt marsh, but that is what mitigators often opt to create. Some US states such as Ohio and California, and some countries such as New Zealand have estimated a total loss of 90% of their original wetlands. That, to me, seems like an epidemic. Wetland management is difficult and costly, but the alternative (total removal) is much worse and will inevitably lead to massive, unprecedented flood events, economic collapse, species die off, and water quality issues.
So, on that topic, what’s the most important consideration in wetland management, reconstruction, and research? Studies suggest that the answers to most questions we have about these important ecosystems lies in their hydrology and hydrologic signature. Armed with information about a wetland’s hydroperiod, we can make inferences about its ability to support biota, its climate (including micro- and pedoclimates), its effectiveness in terms of the services we rely on, and more.
Wetland research is important and is a field that is rapidly increasing in popularity since the 1970’s, which is fantastic. Despite the doom and gloom outlook many “loss charts” show, we as a society are interested in learning about our wetlands and people are starting to get involved, which is a beautiful thing! Supporting research is very important, as is making research accessible and understandable to the public; it is definitely a two way street in that regard. I have lived on wetlands my entire life, I grew up on a pond which led to a brackish bay, then I moved to Louisiana where I live close to the Mississippi River Delta, then I moved to Oregon where I lived at the intersection of a freshwater river and the Pacific Ocean, and then back to Louisiana. Wetlands are important to me both nostalgically and functionally, which is why I’m trying to spread the word about the wonderful world of wetland ecology (or telmatology, if you prefer)! To learn more, email me and I will send you PDFs of excellent scientific papers on these topics!