By Christa Adams
The Earth’s most biologically diverse ecosystem isn’t the tropical rainforest — or even the ocean. Rather it’s the world’s wetlands. If that surprises you, you’re not alone. Fifty-two years ago, on Feb. 2, 1971, a group of passionate environmentalists understood the great importance of the wetlands and set out to protect them. These forward-thinkers gathered on the coast of the Caspian Sea to establish a framework for international cooperation to conserve the planet’s wetlands. This treaty became known as the Ramsar Convention or Convention on Wetlands and its message has since spread to share love and awareness for this vital — and vanishing — piece of the ecosystem.
At SaltyLama, we’re proud our eco-friendly detergent strips contain none of the harmful toxins that traditional laundry detergents pump into our waterways. We recognize the key to sustainable living is to have as little impact on the natural world as possible — after all, we depend on it for our survival. Ahead of World Wetlands Day — February 2, as it is every year — consider these must-know facts about this critical resource.
What are wetlands?
Wetlands are areas of land where water covers the soil or is present either at or near the surface of the soil — saturating it — yearlong or for varying periods during the year. However, the depth and timeframe of this seasonal flooding vary by place and wetland type. Wetlands are transition zones, and they take many forms such as rivers, marshes, bogs, mangroves, mudflats, ponds, swamps, billabongs, peatlands, lagoons, lakes, and floodplains. These areas are neither completely dry nor totally submerged underwater. Instead, they take characteristics of both.
Where are they located?
Everywhere, except Antarctica. These ecosystems can exist in many different climates, varying in size, shape, and depth. Some are found along coasts and inland, like marshes. Some wetlands are flooded woodlands, like swamps. Others are full of spongy mosses, like bogs. Here’s one of the most interesting fun facts about wetlands! Did you know coral reefs can be considered wetlands? Under the Ramsar classification, a coral reef is considered a wetland if it’s near the surface.
Wetlands are Earth’s kidneys
Wetlands have often been referred to as "Earth's kidneys" thanks to their great ability to filter pollutants from the water that flows through them. Like human kidneys that can extract waste and toxins from our blood, wetlands function similarly.
While wetlands may not have one unit doing the work like human kidneys, many biodiverse florae exist to carry out these functions. And there are many similarities indeed. Instead of filtering blood, the wetlands filter and maintain the quality of the water that passes through them. Some things wetlands commonly filter out are nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment, and other pollutants and pesticides from water. With this, they absorb and remove the nutrients or chemicals as water slowly flows through the wetland.
In humans, kidneys oversee the body’s fluid balance. If we are dehydrated, our kidneys try to preserve as much water as possible, and when we have excess water in our bodies, our kidneys work with the urinary tract to discard the excess water. Wetlands work in the same way. These ecosystems mitigate floods and droughts by absorbing and recharging water.
Wetlands are a great habitat for biodiversity
Wetland species are some of the world’s most impressive because they’ve evolved specifically to survive in these hydrologically changing ecosystems. This includes not only the invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals but the vegetation, too. These plants have evolved to survive in seasonally flooded and salty conditions.
Hundreds of bird and fish species, alligators, crocodiles, muskrats, river otters, and even owls find homes in wetlands. In fact, more than half of the 800 species of protected migratory birds in the United States survive through access to wetlands. In terms of vegetation, we can think of cattails in freshwater wetlands or mangrove species along coastal wetlands.
Wetlands are the most biologically diverse of all ecosystems
To some surprise, there is more animal diversity in the world’s wetlands than in any other biome. Since most wetland areas remain humid and moist for most of the year, they are ideal homes for many species. Around 40% of the world’s species live and breed in wetlands. However, climate change places upwards of 25% of these plant and animal species at risk of extinction.
These diverse ecosystems are critical to our planet’s well-being. They store carbon, lower the risk of natural disasters by mitigating floods and protecting coastlines, and they clean our freshwater supply — just to name a few of the many reasons why wetlands are important.
They are one of the most carbon-dense ecosystems
Wetlands, in this case coastal wetlands, can store carbon up to 55 times faster than tropical rainforests. This ability is essential to our planet’s health. Not only do they act like kidneys by cleaning and balancing our water supply, but their ability to store carbon cleans our air supply. This is particularly true of salt marshes, sea grass beds, and mangroves. Peatlands, for example, take up just 3% of the world’s land surface, yet they store twice as much carbon as forests. So, not only do wetlands clean our water but they also improve the air we breathe.
Many of the planet’s wetlands are degraded
Despite the work of the Ramsar Convention, the dangerous threats to wetlands continue. Many of the world’s wetlands are still being drained, destroyed, and replaced with agricultural fields or commercial/residential developments. And in the case of coastal wetlands, many are still cleared for aquaculture, like shrimp ponds. Approximately 35% of wetlands were lost from 1970 to 2015, and the annual loss rate has been accelerating since 2000. In fact, wetlands are disappearing three times faster than forests. We always hear “Save the trees!” but we never hear “Save the wetlands!” As a result, wetlands remain undervalued even by policy and decision-makers.
How can you help?
Firstly, you can get involved with this year’s World Wetlands Day on February 2nd! Follow them on Instagram to stay in the loop or post a pledge here! Of course, share facts about wetlands to help raise awareness. How many of your friends or family know that wetlands are one of the world’s most carbon-dense ecosystems?
There are numerous ways to support the wetlands from quitting seafood or choosing sustainable fishing to using water sparingly. Or if you have wetlands in your area, you can get involved with local conservation efforts (or create your own team if one doesn’t exist!).
Check out these other ways to get protect the world’s wetlands. We also encourage you to look into sustainable living as a way to indirectly conserve wetlands.