The “Wetlands” Eco Mural features a purple lotus flower, sometimes referred to as a water lily, and a green frog. Frogs and water lilies are just two members of many wetland ecosystems–the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth.
Wetlands are classified as an environment that is flooded by fairly shallow water, either seasonally or permanently, and feature a wide array of semi-aquatic and aquatic flora and fauna. These complex and diverse environments can encompass several familiar ecosystems found right here in Pennsylvania, including vernal pools, ponds, marshes, and swamps. Other environments classified as wetlands include bogs, swamps, mangroves, coral reefs, floodplains, and fen. The importance of these environments cannot be understated: they are not only hotspots of biodiversity, but they also maintain and regulate the sources of the Earth’s drinking water. Wetlands are seen as some of the most important environmental health indicators due to their interconnection: wetlands are often situated on porous sediment that filters down to groundwater tables and eventually the aquifers that hold over 95% of the Earth’s drinking water.
These wetlands serve many important functions, including groundwater replenishment, shoreline and storm protection, carbon processing and water purification, flood management and water storage. Many wetlands are critical life-stage habitats, serving as nurseries for thousands of species who leave their young to develop in the shallow, stable waters. In New England, seasonal vernal pools where thousands of amphibians and insects breed and incubate their young are drying up much faster due to climate change, crippling their development cycle and wiping out future generations. This causes a chain reaction of consequences, impacting their predators, the fauna that these species maintain, and the larger ecosystem’s reliance upon a complicated web of interdependent wildlife. Many species of birds, insects, mammals, and fish depend entirely upon wetlands for their entire lifecycles and are specifically evolved for their local hydrology. To understand the enormity of the biodiversity found in these ecosystems, one must only look to the Great Barrier Reef or the Amazon River Basin, both of which are classified as wetlands, and both of which are hotspots of global biodiversity.
Wetlands are particularly sensitive to human interference, and often are some of the first to suffer environmental degradation from wastewater pollution, real estate development, and exploitation of its flora and fauna. Over half of the wetlands in the lower 48 United States have been lost to development and human interference, and yearly an estimated additional 60,000 acres are damaged or destroyed. Rapid degradation of wetlands has rippling consequences that affect ecosystems many thousands of miles away: removing wetlands from inland environments creates vast ocean dead zones like the one we see in the Gulf of Mexico today. These dead zones are created by the poor quality of water that was once filtered and replenished by wetlands running straight into our seas, taking sediment and pollution with it. Wetlands serve as “natural infrastructure,” an intermediary between the water table and our oceans, making their destruction consequential for all habitats around the world.
Wetlands are particularly delicate and extremely important to human survival: to our drinking water, the safety of our communities from erosion and floods, and natural regulation of our carbon emissions. Maintaining our wetlands is especially important as we reach a pivotal moment in the fight against climate change–conservation of natural carbon processors like wetlands must become a priority for mankind if we are to tackle global warming in the long term.
To learn more about amphibians, please visit our Amphibian page
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