Revisiting Wetlands

The Nature of PEI | Gary Schneider

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Wetlands can be hard landscapes to appreciate. They can be buggy and difficult to walk through, and often are seen as areas where we can’t do a thing. There are regulations telling us that we can’t develop there, and their wetness tells us we shouldn’t farm there. Yet as we learn more about them, especially in the context of wildlife habitat, carbon storage, and water retention, they become critically important parts of our Island landscape.

I’ve always loved mucking about in wet areas, fascinated by the plants, birds, amphibians, and even the insects. These are great places to learn about ecology, though the loss of blood sometimes can be a challenge.  

Wetlands are full of stories and of connections. Those pesky mosquitoes pollinate some of our native wildflowers and provide food for swallows and other aerial acrobats. The mosquito larvae are also food for predators in the waterways, everything from fish to aquatic beetles.

The carnivorous plants found in wetlands have always interested me. Our beautiful native pitcher plants are not only eye-catching but also insect-catching. Insects fall into the cup-shaped “pitchers” and are unable to climb back out on the slippery surface of the leaves. With the help of enzymes produced by the plant, insects become a source of food for these wetland plants.  

I recently read a study on young spotted salamanders falling into these same “traps” and also becoming a source of nutrients for pitcher plants. The researchers found that one in five pitcher plants contained young salamanders.

You can imagine that I was immediately intrigued by Canadian Edward Struzik’s new book Swamplands: Tundra Beavers, Quaking Bogs, and the Improbable World of Peat. The book is not only full of great stories, but it also casts a thoughtful eye on the role of peat in storing carbon.

On Prince Edward Island, we have an astounding 1550 peat bogs.  Black Marsh in North Cape and the Miscouche Bog west of Summerside are two well-known examples. The provincial Wetland Conservation Policy commits us to “no net loss” of wetlands, which is good to hear, although wetlands can still be damaged if a development is seen to be “in the public interest.”

I suspect that if we actually knew the value of all the ecological services that these areas provide, we might be less accommodating in regards to work that damages wetlands, even if some form of mitigation is possible.

Struzik says that the Hudson’s Bay Lowland stores five times more carbon per acre than the Amazon rainforest. And that the 3–4% of the world’s terrestrial surface containing peat has twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests. That is simply mindboggling.

What Struzik has done very well is to develop the connections between the wetlands and how their destruction is having serious impacts on the climate and water quality. We have naturally occuring, very effective carbon sinks at a time when we know that carbon storage is an important component in slowing down climate change. Yet worldwide we continue to mine peat bogs and fill them in. Peatlands also play an important role in purifying water, though too often they are destroyed with little thought to the ecological roles they play.

The author also talks about the possibilities of restoring wetlands, especially since peat bogs don’t rely on nutrients, they really just need the water back in place.

This book is worth reading simply as a natural history text, but it is also important in helping us all understand the ecological importance of these systems, especially around carbon storage.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI