Wetlands loss fuels carbon feedback

POSTED: 09/19/12 1:50 PM

St. Maarten – Four years ago, scientists and environmental journalists made a case for the world’s remaining wetlands to be preserved.  At that time Canadian environmentalist Stephen Leahy stated that, “Wetlands are dangerous, scientists say, in the sense that they are ticking carbon bombs best left alone. To help stave off extreme climate change, existing wetlands should be enhanced and new wetlands created so they could capture more carbon.”

It is a similar case that environmentalists locally have been making to protect the final five wetlands here; the Fresh Pond, Mullet Bay Pond, Red Pond, the remainder of the Great Salt Pond and Little Bay Pond. There have been calls for more sustainable development rather than just infrastructural development on this 37 square mile island.

“Wetlands hold massive stores of carbon – about 20 percent of all terrestrial carbon stocks,” said Eugene Turner, a leading wetlands expert at Louisiana State University’s Coastal Ecology Institute.

However, wetlands, including peat lands, continue to be converted to other uses around the world, resulting in large emissions of carbon and methane, a potent greenhouse gas that has 21 times the warming impact of carbon dioxide.

“Researchers have been measuring huge releases of carbon and methane up there,” he said. “It’s crazy to add to that by draining or mismanaging other wetlands.”

In a bid to warn the world of the impending effects of wetlands loss, the Inter Press Agency (IPS) has begun circulating articles to bring more awareness in the media community in particular about the effects developments plans have the environment and lives.

“While birds and bird lovers value wetlands, hardly anyone else does. Besides capturing and holding carbon, wetlands are hotspots of biodiversity, crucial components in flood control and in providing clean water. The recent disastrous floods in the U.S. Midwest would have been far less damaging if wetlands in the region hadn’t been drained decades ago, Turner told IPS.
“Humanity in many parts of the world needs a wake-up call to fully appreciate the vital environmental, social and economic services wetlands provide,” said Paulo Teixeira, coordinator of the Cuiaba-based Pantanal Regional Environmental Programme, a joint effort of the United Nations University (UNU) and Brazil’s Federal University of Mato Grasso (UFMT).

“The benefits of wetlands are not understood by the public. We hope to change this through our meeting,” Teixeria said in an interview.

“Climate change has dramatically increased the need to protect wetlands. Without substantial reductions in emissions of fossil fuels, up to 85 percent of wetlands will be lost in the future. That loss is far more than a loss of important bird habitat – it would also release enough carbon and methane to almost certainly tip the climate into an era of extreme and rapid change, experts believe.

“Too often in the past, people have unwittingly considered wetlands to be problems in need of a solution,” said U.N. Under Secretary-General Konrad Osterwalder.

“Yet wetlands are essential to the planet’s health – and with hindsight, the problems in reality have turned out to be the draining of wetlands and other ‘solutions’ we humans devised,” Osterwalder said in a statement.

Covering just six percent of Earth’s land surface, wetlands – including marshes, peat bogs, swamps, river deltas, mangroves, tundra, lagoons and river floodplains – contain an estimated 771 gigatons (771 billion tons) of greenhouse gases, both CO2 and more potent methane, an amount in CO2 equivalent comparable to the carbon content of today’s entire atmosphere.

Some 60 percent of wetlands worldwide – and up to 90 percent in Europe – have been destroyed in the past 100 years, principally due to drainage for agriculture but also through pollution, dams, canals, groundwater pumping, urban development and peat extraction.

The most immediate challenge to wetlands around the world is competition for water and land in an increasingly hungry world. Teixeria and Turner agree that better management can reduce those pressures while preserving the important ecological services wetlands provide. One service that needs far more recognition is the ability of wetlands to help stabilize the climate, Teixeria pointed out.

Preserving healthy wetlands is a far better alternative than trying to fix or re-create them, said Turner, noting that the U.S. is spending six to seven billion dollars to try to restore Florida’s Everglades wetlands.

“Wetlands can be restored, but most attempts are failing. It’s not easy and it takes many years, decades even to bring them back,” he said.

Wetlands can play an important role in stabilizing the climate. “Our future is tied to the health of wetlands,” said Turner.


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