“For many of us, water simply flows from a faucet, and we think little about it beyond this point of contact. We have lost a sense of respect for the wild river, for the complex workings of a wetland, for the intricate web of life that water supports.”
– Sandra Postel, National Geographic Society and Global Water Policy Project
Every May on the heels of Earth Day, we celebrate wetlands and their enormous value in protecting our health, quality of life and property. This is the first in a series of blogs that will explore the importance of wetlands and what the Patrick Administration is doing on many fronts to study, understand and protect them.
Massachusetts is blessed with a diversity of wetland resources from our inland red maple and cedar swamps, our rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds, to our coastal salt marshes, dunes and beaches. Wetlands filter and cleanse pollutants to protect our drinking water, absorb flood waters and buffer the effects of coastal storms to protect our homes and properties from increasingly frequent and intense storms. In addition to these benefits, wetlands provide critical nurseries and habitat for wildlife, fish and shellfish that are essential to a healthy and vibrant economy. They are also unique places for us to explore and enjoy the wonders of the natural world.
The most recent and compelling research in wetland science reveals the extraordinary role wetlands play in mitigating climate change. Increasing amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide gas is the major cause of global warming – the engine of climate change. Wetland plants, and in particular their soils, function as “carbon sinks” that bind, store and lock up carbon, inhibiting its chemical conversion to carbon dioxide gas. Wetlands occupy 3-7 percent of the global land surface yet store 30 percent of the world’s carbon, and are responsible for 25 percent of the methane emissions each year. Wetlands store an estimated 300 to 700 billion tons of carbon.
Methane gas emissions, another contributor to global warming, are minimized by temperate zone wetlands such as those in Massachusetts. In addition, a recent study from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) determined that salamanders (including those that breed in wetland vernal pools), serve as nature’s climate protecting “vacuum cleaners.” That is because leaf litter from deciduous trees contains an average of 47.5 percent carbon. This carbon, along with methane, tends to be released into the atmosphere, when shredding invertebrates eat them. Salamanders do us a big favor by eating those invertebrates, thereby keeping the carbon in the leaf litter. USFS estimated that the woodland salamanders in their study could store an estimated 179 pounds of carbon per acre of forest litter in the soil, rather than releasing this carbon into the atmosphere. Without wetlands, many salamanders could not provide this unique contribution to slowing global climate change.
Similarly, the urgency of protecting coastal wetlands was emphasized in a 2011 World Bank report that found the drainage and degradation of coastal wetlands released centuries of accumulated carbon, which you can read more about at https://portals.iucn.org/library/efiles/edocs/2011-009.pdf.
Protection and preservation of coastal wetlands, such as tidal marshes, sea-grass, wet meadows and mangrove swamps help to hold and maintain carbon in these coastal plants and soils. Of the 15 coastal deltas studied in this report, seven were found to have released more than 500 million tons of carbon dioxide each since the wetlands were drained and destroyed. Coastal wetlands destruction also compromises these wetlands’ ability to protect against storm surges, rising sea levels and other extreme weather events. With our better understanding of why wetlands are so important – my next blog will focus more specifically on recent field research and wetland assessments being undertaken by MassDEP in collaboration with other organizations that will inform our future policy and regulations. Stay tuned.
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