These wet ecosystems of salt-water estuaries, freshwater marshes, prairie potholes, forested swamps, and bogs provide critical nesting, rearing, feeding, and rest-stop habitat for bird and other wildlife populations across the nation. Coastal wetlands (marshes and mangroves) are highly productive ecosystems that provide important nursery and habitat functions to many fish and shellfish populations. The Gulf Coast wetlands are now being threatened with collapse from oil saturation.
Wetlands are essential to estuary, river, and watershed health, trapping sediments and cleaning polluted waters, preventing floods, recharging groundwater aquifers, and protecting shorelines. Wetlands have the biggest effect in diminishing destructive effects of storm surges because of the friction or buffering it offers against the power of the water and wind coming onshore.
An ecopsychological perspective would view wetland health as intimately tied to human health. Wetlands serve as valuable metaphors for our psychological needs. As we face unexpected crisis (or storms), we too need a buffer zone. wetlands can be seen as defense mechanisms of the psyche. Perhaps these buffer zones helped us to survive situations and experiences as a child or young adult, but hinder our maturation or growth as an adult. We do not need to destroy or remove our psychological wetlands, however, we might be better served as adults if we are able to understand them and allow them to mature along with us.
Preserving our wetlands in the natural world is akin to preserving the wetlands of the human psyche. Both are soulmaking activities that create long lasting benefits for the whole ecosystem. We too, are nature.
Notes from the Wetlands
Wetlands have traditionally been viewed as obstacles to development that should be eliminated. Still, despite their now well-understood importance to ecosystem health, wildlife, families and communities, wetlands continue to be destroyed at an alarming rate, over 100,000 acres per year in watersheds across the country. As wetlands are destroyed, so too are vital natural habitats for many species of songbirds, frogs, fish and other birds and wildlife. As these species and their insect-based food chain disappear, whole ecosystems are disrupted. More than half of the 215 million acres of wetlands that once existed have been destroyed.
Variety of Wetlands:
Salt marshes occur along our coasts near river mouths, on broad coastal plains, and around protected lagoons. They are biologically rich ecosystems, consisting of salt-tolerant grasses and water levels that fluctuate with the tide. Nearly 80 percent of the nationâ€™s salt marshes are found with estuaries such as Chesapeake Bay, San Francisco Bay, and Long Island Sound.
Coastal fresh marshes are located directly inland from salt marshes where the movement of water is influenced by tides, and salinity levels are low. Many species of fish spend all or part of their life cycles in fresh marshes. Salmon and other types of anadromous fish use coastal fresh marshes as nurseries or spawning grounds. Numerous bird species and small furbearing mammals feed, nest, and find shelter in these marshes.
Swamps, unlike marshes, are dominated by woody shrubs and trees, some with hardwoods such as red maple and ashes and others with softwoods like cedar and spruce. In hardwood swamps, a variety of shrubs and plants, such as skunk cabbage, grow beneath the forest canopy. Shrub swamps are dominated by willows, alders, shrubby dogwoods, and buttonbush. Some shrub swamps are permanent, while others slowly transform themselves into true forested swamps.
Bogs are peatlands, usually lacking an overlying layer of mineral soils. They occur primarily in formerly glaciated of the Northeastern U.S., the north-central states, and Canada and often develop in deep glacial lakes. The peat is formed by the gradual decomposition of plants, especially in highly acidic soils and poorly drained areas. The peat forms a floating mat of vegetation over water that may accumulate up to forty feet. Bogs are characterized by evergreen trees and shrubs and are often covered by sphagnum moss.
Vernal pools are, literally, spring pools that tend to fill up in spring and dry up in summer. The important point is that biological activity peaks in spring. In general, vernal pools are small, temporary, and “isolated” from other wetlands, streams, or other water bodies. They provide essential breeding habitat for certain animals, such as fairy shrimp and some species of amphibians. While not all vernal pools dry up completely, the essential ingredient is that the pond has no fish.
Forested floodplain wetlands develop along larger rivers. In the Southeastern U.S. and along the Gulf of Mexico, extensive bottomland hardwood swamp forests occur alongside slow-moving rivers. Here tupelos, baldcypress, sweetgum and red maple are regularly flooded by the river.
Pocosins are boggy shrub wetlands that occur along the coastal plain from Virginia southward to South Carolina. Pocosins are covered with evergreen hollies and bays, and scattered stands of pond pine.
Prairie potholes are shallow depressions scattered across the upper Midwest and the Dakotas that were carved out by retreating glaciers some 10,000 years ago. These wetlands provide crucial habitat for more than 100 species of birds and support the greatest variety and number of animals of any biological community on the continent.
Wetlands also include:
Inland saline and alkaline marshes and riparian wetlands of the arid and semiarid west and Great Plains, Tundra wetlands of Alaska, Muskeg, Tideflat, Ponds, Cienega, Wet pine flatwoods, Willow Carrs, Alpine meadow wetlands of the west, Playa lakes of the southwest and Great Plains, Wet meadows or wet prairies of the Midwest, Mangrove swamps of the southern coast, Sea grass meadows in estuaries, River deltas at the mouths of estuaries.