Our Carbon, Our Wetlands, Our Future

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Carbon cycles around the biosphere. It may be stored as fossil fuel, then burned and released to the atmosphere, incorporated into plants or soil, dissolved in water, etc.

A couple weeks back, the United States Government issued a report on the threat posed by Global Climate Change. It made a lot of important points, but unfortunately much of the message was drowned out by reporting on President Trump’s unwillingness to fight, prepare for, or even acknowledge the threat of climate change. Lest you imagine the report as ramblings of tree-hugging, granola-munching, nature freaks…rest assured, the report is interdisciplinary and a collaboration, and focused on the threat to the health and well-being of the American people. And that threat is considerable.

Why think about a threat to the American people and society when contemplating climate? A little historical perspective might be useful, before we head to the swamp…

We’ve had climate change before, and it was incredibly disruptive. For example, a major immigrant group in the USA are those of Irish descent. A major factor in Irish emigration to North America was The Great Hunger (so-called potato famine) of the mid-1800’s. That event was the result of a fungal pathogen (blight), as is widely-known. Less-known is the contribution of climate: cool, wet conditions—and flooding—aiding the spread of the disease. This great human disruption, and all the historical ramifications, is due at least partly because of meteorological conditions.

More recently, an All-American diaspora happened with the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. As the name implies, great clouds of dust (wind-blown soil) blackened the skies and blanketed the cities of the East. This resulted from poor agricultural practices, but was triggered by an intense drought. It was mainly residents of the Great Plains affected, but also Iowa. And our nation was forever changed by this event—socially, economically, politically.

All in all, it’s obvious that climate disruption leads to disruptions of human society, too. Those examples are two of many around the world, localized or regional, demonstrating the danger of climate change; we would be wise to take heed.

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We have transformed the Iowa landscape (such as at the abandoned town of Owego, seen here). We have also transformed the carbon cycle with our land use and technology…but the change to the atmosphere is not visible.

Our science has improved steadily over decades, helping us understand the contribution of human activity to a changing climate. In short, we ARE changing the chemistry of the atmosphere (by adding carbon to it), and we know the increased carbon concentration changes the climate—to become warmer overall, but with many variations in effects, especially locally severe events. I have added my name to a series of statements about climate change, the most recent (2018) calling for buildings and other infrastructure to be designed with climate change in mind; we need to prepare for what climate change will do…or rather, is doing. (It’s no coincidence that the press conference was held in downtown Cedar Rapids, site of devastating flooding).

Now to the wetlands! Swamps, marshes, fens, and the rest—they affect, and are affected by, climate.

  • Wetlands store carbon, especially in soil or undecomposed organic material (peat), such as the spongy layer in a fen. Preserving intact, functional wetlands keeps that carbon locked up, and continuing growth adds more stored carbon.
  • Wetlands store water, a valuable service to lessen downstream flooding. (Climate change will mean more severe weather events, and worse consequences).
  • Climate change will impact biodiversity, so preserving the few remaining Iowa wetlands—in good condition—is even more important. Rare, threatened and endangered species of animals and plants are found more frequently in these wet habitats than might be expected by the area wetlands cover.
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Will climate change increase the risk of fire in ecosystems? It is a likely scenario.

What will climate change do to Iowa wetlands (or those in other places)? And what will our wetlands do to the climate? I’d like to explore those questions further. One important consideration might be decomposition processes: the decay of organic matter (such as tissues of dead plants) and the subsequent return of carbon to the air. I recently did a little trial run using the Tea Bag Index and shared with my Ecology class. It might be fun and useful to follow up on this in the future, including “tea bags” of a more traditional design: plant tissues from local sources placed in mesh bags (fashioned from window screen). Understanding wetland decomposition could provide useful insights into global carbon dynamics.

Two other recent episodes in my Ecology class also come to mind. This week, we are talking about chemical cycles in ecosystems—including the carbon cycle—and as we look at a box-and-arrow diagram in the textbook, I like to remind students that real ecosystems don’t exist in boxes—they are connected to the rest of the biosphere. Energy, water, chemicals, and even organisms move in, out, and through ecosystems, all the time. And we would be wise to remember our connections with the Earth’s ecosystems.

Also, we had a special visitor in class last week. Derek, a former student now employed by Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, came to recruit summer interns. Even better, as he described that worthy organization, he made a point of distinguishing what they do—stewardship—with the more typical idea of land or natural resource “management.” Indeed, we really should recognize that our predecessors bequeathed us a beautiful, life-filled planet to enjoy and be nurtured by. And we should care for, then pass along, a healthy Earth to those that follow us.

The Society of Wetland Scientists has asked us, the membership, to reach out beyond our group, reminding everyone of the significance of wetlands in climate change. We are asked to encourage you to take measures to address our shared carbon problem. Consider this blog post an invitation. What can we, together, do to raise awareness, and to help us work towards solutions?

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Our actions now, will shape the environment for centuries. Let’s work to make a brighter future!

Author: Paul Weihe

Associate Professor of Biology at Central College, traditional author (Textbook of Limnology, Cole & Weihe, 5th ed.; Waveland Press), and now...blogger!

3 thoughts on “Our Carbon, Our Wetlands, Our Future”

  1. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” Old but still very relevant quote by Upton Sinclair.

    Liked by 1 person

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