By Stephen Leahy
Uxbridge, CANADA, Jul 21 (IPS) – 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.
“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 peatlands, 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.
By itself, climate change is already degrading wetlands, especially in the Arctic and near Arctic regions where the once permanently frozen peatlands are thawing, Turner told IPS prior to the opening of the Eighth INTECOL International Wetlands Conference in Cuiaba, Brazil on Monday.
“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.”
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 said.
“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 conference co-chair 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.
The INTECOL conference will assess the status of global wetlands, identify knowledge gaps, foster greater collaboration and consistency in wetland science worldwide, and offer plain-spoken policy prescriptions for decision makers with an appeal to adopt them with urgency, he said.
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, rector of UNU.
“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 gigatonnes (771 billion tonnes) 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.
For full story please see Wetlands Loss Fuelling CO2 Feedback Loop