Wetlands in a Changing World: Wading into Science for American Wetlands Month!

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Wetlands across the U.S. and around the world act as a crucial link between land and water, providing a number of services such as removing excess nutrients, pollutants, and sediment from water and acting as natural buffers to floodwaters. In 1991...

 

Pond, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Wakulla County, Florida. Photographer: Alan Cressler
Pond, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Wakulla County, Florida. Photographer: Alan Cressler

Wetlands across the U.S. and around the world act as a crucial link between land and water, providing a number of services such as removing excess nutrients, pollutants, and sediment from water and acting as natural buffers to floodwaters. In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency established May as American Wetlands Month to celebrate the importance of these ecosystems.

Understanding both the impact of climate change on wetlands and the role that wetlands play in adapting to climate change is a vital part of ensuring climate change preparedness. Luckily, scientists across the country are already examining these relationships.

To support this scientific endeavor, several of the eight regional Department of the Interior Climate Science Centers (CSCs) have funded research projects that focus on ways to improve the methods and tools used in wetland research and to help shed light on how changes in climate might affect these invaluable resources. The results of these studies are often used to support planning and decision-making by natural and cultural resource managers.

Keep reading to learn more about this work and to get a glimpse of some of the findings that describe what our future may hold for wetlands and their inhabitants!

Image: Cascades Frog
A Cascades frog peeks out of the water in Olympic National Park. Maureen Ryan, University of Washington

Wildlife Worries in Western Wetlands

In the Northwest U.S., a group of researchers have found that some wetland amphibians are at risk of local extinction due to climate change (combined with the intentional introduction of predatory species), as described in a paper published last year. These wetlands are experiencing threats from several different factors, including declines in snow-pack and increased temperatures, which in turn affect the flow and seasonal fluctuations of water through wetlands. The team is integrating remote sensing, hydrological and biological modeling, and traditional fieldwork to understand these changes.

Studies are also being conducted in the Pacific Northwest and in California where salt marshes, mudflats, and shallow bays act as connected habitats that support a wealth of wildlife species. Scientists are examining current weather patterns, bottom elevations, tidal range, and sediment of wetland habitats to see how these elements affect plants and animals, and to understand how they will be impacted by climate change.

Image: Salt Marsh
Salt marsh view at Amelia island, a barrier island on the Atlantic coast of North Florida. Includes such plants as Spartina sp. and Juncus sp. Randolph Femmer, USGS

Mangrove Migration in the Gulf of Mexico

Similar to the studies along the west coast, in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists are researching the connections between climate and wetland ecosystem structure. One study is exploring the effect of freshwater availability on foundation plant species’ abundance (species like mangrove trees and salt marsh grasses that can thrive in tidal wetlands), comparing scenarios of a drier versus wetter future for the south-central and southeastern U.S. As expected, these plant species decline in drier scenarios.

Mangrove forests are also being studied in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coast to understand how mangrove forest migration, due to changes in regional climate, can cause displacement of salt marshes. This change in coastal plant life has important implications for the ability of coastal ecosystems to handle climate change impacts such as sea-level rise and extreme storm events.

Image: Aerial View of Subsiding Marshes in the Mississippi River Delta
An aerial view of subsiding marshes in the Mississippi River Delta. This region contains vast areas of marshes, swamps, and barrier islands—important habitat for wildlife, as nursery grounds for marine life, and as protective buffers against storms and hurricanes. However, rapid land subsidence due to sediment compaction and dewatering increases the rate of submergence in this deltaic system. Photographer: K. L. McKee, USGS

Improved Guidance for Management Groups

Providing information and tools that are digestible and usable to resource managers is a crucial part of CSC-supported science. For example, researchers in the Northeast have conducted a critical evaluation of terrestrial and wetland habitat classification and mapping methods to help standardize various ecosystem maps that currently exist and to help managers utilize these maps when making decisions about wetland vulnerability or other problems.

Another group is developing a handbook for resource management that focuses on explaining the use of sea-level rise and coastal wetland models for ecosystem management. The handbook will include decision-support tools and simulation models that can help integrate climate change impacts into management considerations.

These projects represent only a small portion of our work on understanding climate change impacts to wetlands and other important ecosystems throughout the U.S. To learn more about our research, please browse our project pages or visit our project search page.

The mission of the Climate Science Centers (CSCs) is to guide policy makers and managers of parks, refuges and other cultural and natural areas on how to help species, ecosystems and human communities adapt to climate change. The U.S. Geological Survey’s National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center (NCCWSC) provides management and national coordination for the CSCs.

You can also learn more about wetlands from the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wetlands Research Center