The Secret Life of Wetlands: Finding Solutions to Environmental Threats at UMD

Ariana: A wetland is a unique ecosystem that
is the bridge between terrestrial ecosystems and aquatic ecosystems, so for example, a
forest and a stream. They have unique soils. They have plants that are adapted to living
in those wet conditions, and then they have water. Those three things make a wetland. Fernando: Wetlands control large parts of
the hydrologic cycle, but they also control large parts of the carbon cycle. It’s got a lot of mass, a lot of biomass because
there’s so much water that it can grow very quickly. Ariana: These systems are incredibly productive
systems. And so they are a very impressive what we
call “natural carbon sink” that is helping to mitigate climate change. Fernando: Wetlands are able to store as much
or even more carbon than forests. Ariana: They’re great recreational opportunities,
too. People like to go bird watching in wetlands,
for example, or they’re some of the most fun places to go kayaking through. So they can be very magical, wonderful places
to do recreation as well. VOICEOVER: Wetlands also help improve water
quality and protect coastlines from flooding. But landowners and governments have not always
recognized the value of wetlands. Fernando: Wetlands were seen as essentially
swamps—things that you wanted to get rid of. So wetlands were systemically destroyed and
then converted to urban land in the case of south Florida. And the same has been happening in other wetland
systems around the world. VOICEOVER: Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm, Ariana
Sutton-Grier and their colleagues at the University of Maryland’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary
Center are learning about threats to wetland ecosystems, and working to find solutions. Ariana: When we destroy coastal wetlands,
that carbon that was locked up in that soil very rapidly gets lost back to the atmosphere. So what was a really important natural carbon
sink has suddenly become a new human-caused source of carbon. Fernando: The constant and frequent flooding
that occurs in Florida is because wetlands were there to prevent that from happening. You get rid of the wetlands, you start flooding. VOICEOVER: Miralles-Wilhelm recently contributed
to a National Academies report on the restoration of the Florida Everglades. Fernando: And essentially climate change has
two key effects on Everglades restoration. The Everglades are very low-lying wetlands,
which means that they’re very susceptible to sea level rise. Salt is able to move in and displace fresh
water. Climate change probably will decrease the
amount of rain that goes in, so when you have less rain coming in and sea water moving through,
what you create is what I like to refer to as a sandwich effect, where basically fresh
water is being squeezed out on both ends. VOICEOVER: Sutton-Grier recently co-authored
a study in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment that found coastal wetlands
to be exceptionally good at storing carbon. Ariana: We get asked all the time, why are
you only talking about wetlands? Why are we not talking about corals? Why are we not talking about fish? Coastal blue carbon is the carbon taken up
and stored in coastal wetlands: mangroves, salt marsh and tidal marshes, and also sea
grasses. The answer on corals, kelp, and on fish is
they are very important habitats. They are, however, not long-term carbon sinks. VOICEOVER: The University of Maryland has
a large part to play in the future of wetlands research. Fernando: I think as we move forward with
increasing threats of climate change, we really need a new generation of practitioners and
professionals, to attack these problems that are going to be probably much more severe
than they are today. Ariana: I get to work here with faculty at
University of Maryland and I also sit at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. My position really allows me to bridge a lot
of worlds so that I am really at that science and policy nexus, really thinking about how
is the science we’re doing getting used for better management and policymaking. Fernando: The fact that we’ve gotten better
and better at measuring wetland biomass from space, using remote sensing satellite technology,
is what has enhanced in a very short period of time—and I’m really looking at the last
10 years—our understanding of wetlands as systems. So if you look at the University of Maryland,
within a five-mile radius you will find the highest concentration of Earth system remote
sensing scientists in the world. And that is what we bring to the table very
effectively in the area of wetlands.

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