The Green Room

By Beckrich, Amanda | The Science Teacher, November 2013 | Go to article overview

The Green Room


Beckrich, Amanda, The Science Teacher


Why Care About Wetlands?

A wetland is any land area where the surface soil is saturated at least part of every year. Wetlands are transitional zones between land and water characterized by unique flora and hydrology. Swamps, marshes, and bogs are types of wetlands. For more information, peruse the wetlands portion of the United States Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) website (see "On the web").

Wetlands are ecological treasures. They are habitats, nesting grounds, and nurseries for wildlife. Almost half of all bird species in North America either nest in or feed in wetlands (EPA 2001). Wetlands act like sponges, absorbing and slowly releasing water back to the land surface or to groundwater. One acre of wetland can absorb up to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater (EPA 2001). Often referred to as nature's kidneys, wetlands are natural wastewater treatment plants. As water flows through a marsh, producers (organisms that form nutritional organic substances from inorganic substances like carbon dioxide) and decomposers (who break down organic matter) filter and clean it. In addition, wetlands "are some of the most biologically productive natural ecosystems in the world, comparable to tropical rain forests and coral reefs in their productivity and the diversity of species they support" (EPA 2001). Find informative factsheets about the benefits of wetlands at the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands website (see "On the web").

Wetlands' ecological value translates to economic value. Worldwide, wetlands have been valued at $14.9 trillion (Costanza et al. 1997). Wetlands are great for recreation and tourism and support many other industries. For example, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), more than half of the United States' commercially harvested fish rely on coastal wetlands (see "On the web"). In addition, wetlands provide valuable flood control. The storm protection provided by coastal wetlands in the United States are worth an estimated $23.2 billion per year (Costanza et al. 2008).

Increasingly, cities and states are restoring wetlands--a natural water filter--instead of building more expensive wastewater treatment plants. New York City has avoided spending billions on new wastewater treatment plants this way (see "On the web"). Find more detailed information in the EPA's summary of the economic benefits of wetlands (see "On the web").

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