Droughts can cause irreversible damage to wetlands, a study finds

In a study published in the journal Earth-Science Reviews, scientists from the University of Adelaide highlight the various physical and chemical changes that occur in wetlands during droughts. Sometimes it leads to severe and irreversible drying of wetlands. 

A wetland is a unique ecosystem that is either flooded by water either permanently or seasonally. Covering an area greater than 12.1 million square kilometers globally, they are considered the most biologically diverse of all ecosystems. Wetlands play many functions, including water purification, water storage, processing of carbon and other nutrients, stabilizing shorelines, and supporting fauna and flora. It is estimated that wetlands deliver at least $27 trillion in benefits annually. 

According to Project Leader and Associate Professor Luke Mosley, from the University’s Environment Institute and School of Biological Sciences, “Wetlands around the world are incredibly important for maintaining our planet’s biodiversity, and they store vast amounts of carbon that can help fight climate change.”

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Acidic (pH 4) and iron-rich (indicated by orange-brown color) water in a wetland following exposure during drought | Image: University of Adelaide

Wetlands suffer from droughts due to dry climate and excessive diversion of water that usually flows into them. Drought often leads to severe cracking and compaction, acidification, loss of organic matter, and enhanced greenhouse gas emissions like methane. Sometimes it can lead to irreversible damage to the soil, impacting water quality when the soils are rewet when the drought ends. 

Associate Professor Mosley says, “We have seen many examples of how the drought in the Murray-Darling Basin has caused major issues including acidification of soil and water due to acid sulfate soils exposure in wetlands. This review highlights substantial gaps in our global understanding of the effects of drought on wet soils and how they will respond to increasing drought,” 

The effects of drought depend on the region and soil types. Many of the wetlands in the south and central America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Oceania are predicted to be vulnerable to the impact of drought due to climate change.

Global distribution of wetland drought studies assessed in this review. Wetland distribution is in green and sites where drought studies were recorded and reviewed are marked as X. Image: University of Adelaide

According to the lead author Dr. Erinne Stirling, from Zhejiang University (China) and the University of Adelaide, the review highlights that there is no readily available published research on drought-affected wetland soils for a huge swath of the world. When it comes to applied research into water management outcomes for wetlands and wetland soils, there is none. 

She adds, “At a global level, wet soils are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and need to be protected given the very high environmental and socio-economic values they support. It is our sincere hope that the information in this review contributes to protecting these valuable ecosystems.”

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Source: Phys.org

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