World Wetlands Day: 50 Years of Recognition

February 2 in the United States is Groundhog Day. We all know that if the groundhog emerges from his burrow in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and sees his shadow on a nice sunny morning, we are all in for six more weeks of winter. But February 2 is less commonly known as World Wetlands Day. This year, 2021, will mark the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the international Convention on Wetlands. To put this in perspective, the first Earth Day was April 22, 1970. So obviously right from the beginning of the environmental movement the importance of wetlands was recognized and deemed integral to the well-being of the planet.

The focus of World Wetlands Day annually is raising awareness of the relationship between wetlands and the health of the planet and its people. Interestingly there are only nine events scheduled in the United States compared to 340 events in Europe, with a total of 540 events worldwide. This year’s theme, quoting from the World Wetlands Day website, “shines a spotlight on wetlands as a source of freshwater and encourages actions to restore them and stop their loss.”

Our state of Virginia is blessed with varied topography, ranging from sub-alpine meadows in the Grayson Highlands to the Chesapeake saltwater marshes and every kind of marsh, floodplain, swamp, and coastal wetland in between. As this map shows, multiple agencies recognize significant areas of the state as needing priority wetland conservation.

Photo CC: Virginia Department of Conversation and Recreation

In Virginia there are many types of wetlands. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers each has its own classification system. The two schemes classify wetlands based on type of vegetation, dominant water source, and typography. Generally, our wetlands can be divided into three major categories: marshes, swamps, and bogs. Each of these can be further subdivided into groups such as tidal and subtidal marshes, as well as forested and bottomland hardwood swamps like the Great Dismal Swamp.

Wetlands are extremely complex and diverse ecosystems with unique populations of flora and fauna and microbes. They have been described as “biological supermarkets” and are intimately involved in the life cycles of birds, fish, shellfish, reptiles, amphibians, plants, insects, mammals and even microbes. Today there is continuing research on the vital function wetlands play in the capture of carbon within their soils and plant communities—thereby storing carbon and not releasing it into the atmosphere as CO2 and increasing global warming.

Wetlands also serve important functions in the control of flood waters, and during drought they help to maintain the flow of surface water.

The focus of World Wetlands Day 2021 is on freshwater and the role wetlands play in the water cycle. We all know that water is vital to our existence. But according to the U.S. Geological Survey, less than 3% of the earth’s water is fresh. And of that, 68% is trapped in icecaps and glaciers and a little over 30% in ground water. Less than 0.5% of our fresh water is found in rivers, lakes, and varied wetlands on the surface. Water—how precious it is, and how little thought we give to it in our daily lives.

In our role with Virginia Cooperative Extension as Piedmont Master Gardeners, we know that the decisions we make personally—and the science-based recommendations we make to the public—have consequences regarding water quality and ultimately wetlands. A decision to plant native species rather than exotic annuals, for example, can conserve water. The Healthy Virginia Lawns program and its soil-testing and nutrient recommendations have huge implications for reducing nutrient runoff into streams and its impact on wetlands. Low-volume water gardening, composting yard waste, and maintaining soil health all have positive effects on water quality. Our recommendations concerning stormwater runoff, riparian buffer zones, swales, and rain gardens all make an impact as well.

These are just some of the ways that we as Extension Master Gardeners can protect the resources celebrated each year on World Wetlands Day. As the saying goes, think globally, act locally.

Prepared by Jim Hays, Piedmont Master Gardener, Class of 2020

References:

“World Wetlands Day,” Norwegian Environmental Council, 2021.

“Water Quality,” Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

“Chesapeake Bay,” Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

“Sustaining America’s Aquatic Biodiversity: What is Aquatic Biodiversity; Why is it Important?” Helfrich, Louis A., Neves, Richard J., & Parkhurst, James. Virginia Cooperative Extension, Publication 420-520, 2019.

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