Climate change

How Wetlands help the environment

What wetlands can do for us

With climate change on the rise, more and more ways are being sought to reduce or somehow stop harmful emissions. All the human activities, such as agriculture and human settlements, are releasing a lot of pollutants into the atmosphere. 

There is one relatively simple option to reduce emissions. It is a method that comes from nature itself and that is probably why it worked much better until a few decades ago than it does now: all sort of wetlands.

Please also read: Importance of wetlands

What are wetlands?

Wetlands are natural ecosystems that, unlike other ecosystems, can store a lot of carbon. This prevents the release of the harmful substance. Worldwide, peatlands unfortunately cover only about 3% of the total area; however, they are the most carbon rich of all terrestrial areas. Even though they cover only a small area of the Earth, they sequester about twice as much carbon as the biomass of all the Earth’s forests combined. That is how big a contribution wetlands can make to our climate! 

Natural wetlands draw CO2 from the atmosphere, which they store as carbon in the peat soil. If they are drained or otherwise destroyed, all the carbon is released. Peatlands are also important for the water cycle. They function like a sieve and filter water so that groundwater is not polluted. Some wetlands are also covered with forest; these are particularly efficient at storing harmful gases from the atmosphere. 

Why are wetlands destroyed?

Unfortunately, it happens far too often that wetlands are drained in order to be used for agricultural activities. This process releases the gases already stored in the wetland. In fact, 500,000 hectares of wetlands are destroyed every year by human activities. The tragic thing about this is that it takes decades for them to grow back or to be successfully re-watered.

The turf that exists in wetlands is also extracted far too often. This soil is very fertile and is often used in horticulture, but should be replaced with ecological alternatives.

Wetlands in Austria

The situation is unfortunately no different in Austria; here, too, the drainage of peatlands is the main reason for the endangerment of them. More than 90% of all peatlands in Austria have already been drained. Only a few intact wetlands remain, which continue to function and thus contribute to halting human-induced climate change.

In summary

The wetlands that still exist and are intact should be protected at all costs. Those that are already protected should also be controlled to prevent illegal activities in the wetlands. There are already many projects and initiatives working to protect wetlands, including the Europe-wide ALFAwetlands project.

In addition, drained wetlands can and should be least partially restored, with great effort and patience. In order to still be able to benefit from the areas, reeds can be cultivated and processed, for example, or animals such as water buffaloes can be used.

The number of benefits provided by wetlands make them among the most economically valuable ecosystems on Earth, from flood protection to biodiversity. Some benefits are local per river basins, like enhanced water quality, while others are global such as carbon sequestration and storage. An effective prioritization of wetland conservation and restoration should consider these multiple co-benefits operating at different scales.

Etienne Fluet-Chouinard
Lead Nature study author, Stanford University

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