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World Wetlands Day Highlights Importance Of Vital Habitats

02/02/2017 10:50 GMT | Updated 02/02/2017 10:50 GMT
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February 2nd is World Wetlands Day - and it's almost as exciting as Christmas for those of us who study and work in these fascinating habitats.

However, we should all be celebrating the importance of our bogs, fens, marshes and swamps today; because we owe so much to them. Unfortunately we haven't always appreciated this and considered wetlands merely as unproductive wastelands to be drained or destroyed to make way for more profitable developments and agricultural fields.

Thankfully we're now realising just how crucial these ecosystems are. Far from being worthless, wetlands are some of the most valuable areas of the planet both in terms of the wildlife that rely on them and the resources, and services they provide us with. Indeed without wetlands our modern way of life would look very different.

For starters they feed us - around half the world's population depends on man-made wetlands to grow rice, the ultimate staple food. Other wetland plants provide us with everything from medicines to building materials and they are the home, refuge, nurseries and feeding grounds of countless species of animals and birds, many of which are commercially important.

The natural filtering properties of wetlands mean they are able to clean contaminated waters. This allows polluted water to be cleaned completely naturally before it enters our rivers, lakes and seas, and even before it goes into reservoirs for us to drink. Indeed their water-cleaning abilities have led wetlands to being referred to as the "kidneys of the landscape", and we're no longer relying on existing wetlands to treat water but building new ones specifically targeted to remove particular chemicals and pollutants.

Flooding

Ironically wetlands are also doing their bit to keep us dry. Along the coast habitats such as salt marshes are crucial in buffering communities from rising sea levels and can be far easier to manage than expensive man-made defenses. Moving inland, a healthy wetland can act like a giant sponge soaking-up and holding back water from storms and heavy rainfalls, and releasing it slowly over time. This prevents the spikes in river levels which can cause so much damage to properties and infrastructures.

We are now even taking this basic wetland principle of holding onto water, into our cities and building small-scale wetlands alongside, or instead of, standard road drainage systems. These so called Sustainable Drainage Systems, or SuDS, can dramatically reduce the problems of standing water in our concrete-covered developments. As the climate changes and storm events become more and more common the ability of wetlands to curb some of the effects of these floods will become increasingly important.

Yet wetlands have another trick up their sleeve - they could actually help stop and perhaps even reverse the impacts of climate change; because wetlands and in particular peatlands can store vast climate-altering amounts of carbon. As plants on these bogs and fens grow they take in carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, and much of this carbon is used and stored by the plants. When the plants die, instead of rotting away in the ground as you'd expect, parts of the plants stay almost intact in the waterlogged acidic peat-soils which gradually build-up over time - locking away gigatons of carbon.

So although forests often get the credit for storing carbon with their towering, charismatic trees, it's actually peatlands that are the superheroes when it comes to capturing carbon. In fact, peatlands store twice the amount of carbon than the planet's forests; despite only covering a fraction of the land area.

Power of peatlands

Excitingly, if we improve and change our management of wetlands there is the possibility that many peatlands could be used to store even more carbon. In the same way that large-scale tree planting is seen as a way of helping to combat climate change modifying how we look after our wetlands could soon become a crucial, and far more effective, weapon in the fight.

We have a lot to thank wetlands for - they are more than just the kidneys of the landscape, they are the beating heart of life on earth giving us the very lifeblood for so much of both our natural and modern world. So please spare them a thought today and although, I confess, it may not be as exciting as Christmas the (slightly adjusted) adage is still true - a wetland is for life, not just for World Wetlands Day.

For more information on World Wetlands Day visit: www.worldwetlandsday.org

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