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Jon Sweetman: Bestow love on a wetland; help save the environment

Wetlands are areas of land that are covered by water or feature flooded or waterlogged soils. They can remain in a flooded state either seasonally or year-round.

Whether seasonal or permanent, water saturation produces hydric soils containing little or no oxygen.

But this doesn’t mean that they are lifeless. Wetlands are full of unique water-loving plants and wildlife that have adapted to such wet environments.

Wetlands can take many different forms, depending on the local climate, water conditions and land forms and features.

Swamps are dominated by woody trees or shrubs. Marshes often feature more grasslike plants, such as cattails and bulrushes. Bogs and fens accumulate peat — deposits of dead and partly decomposed plant material that form organic-rich soil.

Wetlands are important environments for many reasons. They provide ecological services whose value has been estimated to be worth more than $47 trillion per year.

Wetlands support very high levels of biodiversity. Scientists estimate 40% of all species on earth live or breed in wetlands.

Wetlands are also critical homes or stopovers for many species of migratory birds. In the central U.S. and Canada, wetlands in the so-called prairie pothole region on the Great Plains support up to three-quarters of North America’s breeding ducks, for example.

Along with providing important habitat for everything from microbes to frogs to waterfowl, wetlands also work to improve water quality. They can capture surface runoff from cities and farmlands and work as natural water filters, trapping excess nutrients that otherwise might create dead zones in lakes and bays.

Wetlands can also help remove other pollutants and trap suspended sediments that cloud water bodies, which can kill aquatic plants and animals.

Because wetlands are often in low-lying areas of the landscape, they can store and slowly release surface water.

Thus, they can be extremely important for reducing the impacts of flooding. In some places, water entering wetlands can also recharge groundwater aquifers that are important for irrigation and drinking water.

Wetlands also act as important carbon sinks. As wetland plants grow, they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Then they die, sink to the bottom and decompose very slowly.

Over time, the carbon they contain accumulates in wetland soils, where it can be stored for hundreds of years. Conserving and restoring wetlands is an important strategy for regulating greenhouse gases and mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Despite the many valuable services they provide, wetlands are constantly being drained and/or filled, mainly for farming and development. Since 1970, the planet has lost 35% of its wetlands, three times its loss of forest lands.

Destruction and degradation of wetlands has led to the loss of many organisms that rely on wetland habitat, including birds, amphibians, fish, mammals and many insects. For example, dragonfly and damselfly species are declining worldwide as the freshwater wetlands where they breed are drained and filled.

A marsh or bog may not look like a productive place, but wetlands teem with life. They are critically important components of our environment.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.

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