Wet and Wild, From Coast to Coast

May is American Wetlands Month

Wetlands.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

As NOAA joins the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to celebrate the 20th anniversary of American Wetlands Month this May, scientists are shedding new light on the pivotal role that our coastal wetlands play in reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Wetlands: The Unsung Heroes

Traditionally, tropical rainforests have been credited in the fight against the relentless buildup of greenhouse gases, acting as natural carbon “sinks” or repositories for excess carbon dioxide. All along, the real carbon sinking superheroes are the world’s wetlands.

Coastal wetlands — seagrass beds, mangrove forests and marshes — cover less than 1 percent of the total marine area on the planet, but they capture up to 70 percent of carbon permanently stored in the marine environment. However, human activities are damaging or destroying these areas just when we need them most.

Wetlands.

High resolution (Credit:NOAA)

Colors of the Carbon Rainbow

 “Black” and “brown” carbon are the terms used, respectively, for soot and greenhouse gases produced by fossil fuel emissions and when carbon-containing materials such as garbage and manure break down. “Green” carbon refers to the greenhouse gases trapped and stored by the world’s forests and grasslands. 

Color-coding carbon doesn’t stop there. In 2009, the United Nations Environmental Programme introduced the concept of “blue carbon,” referring to the portion of carbon trapped and stored in marine environments such as open sea, coral reefs, sea grass beds, coastal mangroves, estuaries and salt marshes.

Wetlands are effective at storing carbon dioxide because of their near-constant water cover that prevents oxygen from entering the muddy soil and slows bacterial decomposition — a process that releases a lot of carbon dioxide.

Wetlands.

High resolution (Credit:NOAA)

Mangroves, marshes and seagrasses capture and store most of the carbon buried in marine sediments — known as blue carbon sinks. Blue (i.e., marine) carbon sinks also beat rainforests in staying power. Carbon that finds its way to the sea floor will stay there for thousands of years, compared to just a few decades in rainforests. However, human activity is degrading these ecosystems — they are disappearing at a rate five to 10 times faster than rainforests.

Conservation for Today and Tomorrow

Our coastal wetlands serve as water purifiers, coastal defenders against storms and nurseries for birds and marine life. To help preserve and restore these wetlands, NOAA’s Coastal Services Center provides information, services, and technology to the nation's coastal resource managers in the public and private sectors.

Based on extensive scientific and management expertise, NOAA provides recommendations on ways to avoid, minimize and mitigate the adverse effects of a project, such as construction that may encroach on a wetland area. NOAA also continues to research the importance of wetlands to fish, the success of coastal wetland restoration efforts, and the effects of development on coastal wetlands.

“We are always most conscious of what’s happening in our own back yards, so people living on the coasts are usually the ones most concerned about coastal wetlands,” says Susan-Marie Stedman, NOAA Fisheries’ wetland scientist. “Yet today’s science tells us that people far inland — and even on other continents — are affected by what is happening to our coastal wetlands. It’s more important than ever that we work as hard as we can to conserve them for today and for future generations.”

Wetlands.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Keeping Watch for Our Wetlands: NOAA and the BP Oil Spill

Although great strides have been made in better managing and observing America’s oceans, coastlines, and Great Lakes over the past two decades, the challenges to protect the marine environment from oil spills are, in some ways, more complex and challenging than ever before.

As the nation’s leading scientific resource for oil spills, NOAA has been on the scene of the BP oil spill from the start, providing coordinated scientific weather and biological response services on scene and remotely to federal, state and local organizations.

NOAA experts are predicting where the oil is spreading and how weather and sea conditions will affect the oil and cleanup efforts. NOAA also is advising the U.S. Coast Guard on cleanup options, as well as monitoring and assessing damage to sensitive marine resources, including our coastal wetlands.

Wetlands Are Critical to Our Way of Life

This American Wetlands Month, let’s celebrate and appreciate the coastal wetlands that give us protective buffers from storms, cleaner air to breathe and fresh seafood to enjoy.

NOAA, EPA and a host of public and private partners have planned a wide array of events across the nation in May to celebrate and teach us about coastal wetlands. NOAA logo.

Other Resources

10 Things You Can Do to Protect Wetlands
Find American Wetlands Month Events Near You