Wetlands: Slowing Down The Pace Of Climate Change

Earth’s constantly changing climate has proven to be one of the biggest threats to face modern civilization. Since pre-industrial times, human activity has increased the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere by 40%, intensifying the natural greenhouse effect of the Earth and increasing temperatures. These rapidly rising temperatures caused by global climate change have already significantly contributed to species extinction and ecosystem collapse, water shortages and rising sea levels, but also to melting glaciers and warming oceans, and extreme weather events like intense droughts, storms, floods and heat waves. To properly tackle these problems, reducing carbon emissions should become our central priority.


Even though rainforests are typically recognized as “earth’s lungs” and the main tool for carbon emissions reduction, new research suggests that another natural solution for climate change mitigation is gaining popularity because of its numerous beneficial services: wetlands. 


Wetlands, which occupy around 6% of Earth’s surface, are among the most prolific and biologically varied ecosystems on the planet. Simply put, wetlands are geographic regions where water covers or is near the soil’s surface. They are distinguished from other types of land and bodies of water chiefly by the vegetation that has acclimated to their wet soil. Because water determines their biological, physical, and chemical properties, wetlands can take the forms of rivers, swamps, ponds, lakes, lagoons, but also marshes, bogs, mudflats, floodplains and mangroves. These dynamic systems have seasonal, yearly and decadal cycles of dry and wet phases which enables them to provide ecosystem services even while climate change continues. 

Known as “biodiversity hotspots” and “biological supermarkets”, they contain a wide range of microbes, insects, plants, reptiles, birds, fish and mammals and produce a large amount of food which attracts these species. 


Wetlands capture pollutants like phosphorus and heavy metals in their soils, convert nitrogen into a form that plants can use, and physically and chemically degrade bacteria. Although they cover a small percentage of earth’s surface, they are vital for our survival. 

As a result of their unique natural characteristics, wetlands offer numerous advantages. While coastal wetlands like salt marshes and mangroves act as natural coastal barriers that prevent coastal erosion, urban wetlands can protect cities from storm surges and floods by acting as natural absorbents for excess rainfall. Some wetland vegetation like trees and root mats can decrease the pace and distribution of flood waters throughout the floodplain. Because they have the ability to absorb energy and retain water, wetlands can assist in maintaining stable flow rates, supply water during periods of drought and reduce downstream flood damage during storms. Moreover, certain plants and microorganisms that reside in wetlands may assist in the purification of water from excess nutrients and pollutants, and consequently create a vital source of freshwater. Wetlands in Florida’s Everglades, for instance, assist refill the Biscayne Aquifer, the city of Miami’s primary source of drinking water.


Many varieties of aquatic and terrestrial plant and animal species rely on wetlands for their survival. In addition to providing a home, wetlands also  produce large amounts of food, supporting a very high level of biodiversity. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,  wetlands provide fully 60% of all threatened species and 40% of all endangered species listed in 1991 with essential habitat. For example, without wetlands, marine life animals like shrimp, oysters, crab, trout and clams would be left without food, shelter, breeding and nursery grounds.


However, the most important feature of wetlands is probably their ability to serve as huge carbon sinks- capturing, storing and regulating greenhouse gasses in their soil and plant communities. Wetlands’ vegetation cover and algal activity assists in controlling  processes  that produce GHG such as decomposition. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, in comparison to rainforests, wetlands can store around 50 times more carbon. For this reason, wetlands represent a viable technique for mitigating the effects of climate change.


Wetlands are essential, productive ecosystems which offer humanity and the planet nothing but benefits.  They are valuable resources that should be maintained and protected because of their important role in the survival of countless plant and animal species,  as well as in flood control, shoreline erosion protection, groundwater recharge, freshwater supply, and climate change mitigation. 


Wetlands that are well-managed can thus play an essential role in assisting society in adapting to climate change, but also in ensuring human safety and well-being. The quicker we shift our focus in seeing wetlands as part of the solution rather than part of the problem, the faster we build up our resilience to climate change.