February 2 is World Wetlands Day—a global day of awareness for the role wetlands play in the health of ecosystems around the world. According to the United Nations, 35% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared in the last 50 years. This year’s World Wetlands Day theme, It’s Time for Wetlands Restoration, highlights the need to prioritize the health of wetlands and revive and restore degraded ecosystems. 

For nearly 50 years, MBL scientists have studied salt marsh wetlands in Great Sippewissett Marsh in Falmouth and the Plum Island Ecosystems Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site north of Boston. 

Marshes—both freshwater and saltwater—act as nurseries to a number of vital species and aid in the reduction of storm surge. They reduce nitrogen loads from land, helping to alleviate coastal eutrophication. With atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rising, wetland ecosystems, which store more carbon per area than almost any other ecosystem on earth, are more vital than ever.

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“Over the last few decades we have observed that salt marshes are degrading. This is due, in part, from a more rapid rise in sea level,” said Anne Giblin, director of the MBL Ecosystems Center. Another part, said Giblin, is new research that shows that alterations made to the marsh landscape centuries ago by early colonists are contributing to today’s problems. 

Early colonists built shallow berms and dug ditches to increase marsh drainage and to encourage the growth of salt marsh hay, but thanks to faster rates of sea level rise from climate change, this altered hydrology leads to ponding on salt marsh surfaces, which kills the marsh grass and shrubs. 

Non-governmental organizations across Massachusetts are involved in efforts to restore a more normal marsh hydrology and repair some of this centuries old damage. Scientists at MBL, the Woodwell Climate Research Center, and many other institutions, are heavily involved in helping monitor the marsh responses.

Wetlands are very mixed use, functioning as everything from natural parks in people’s backyards to storm barriers to shellfish. And everyone who utilizes wetlands has a different idea of how they should, or shouldn’t, be restored, said MBL Distinguished Scientist Ivan Valiela.  

“The restoration of coastal wetlands has been a hopeful goal for many years, but it’s a tough thing to evolve into realistic plans,” said Valiela. “There’s no easy solutions.”

MBL research on coastal water quality is developed in partnership with federal and state agencies, resource managers, and other stakeholders. The Plum Island Ecosystems LTER, which is administered by the MBL Ecosystems Center, is an integrated research, education, and outreach program aimed to understand the long-term response of a wetland ecosystem to changes in climate, land use, and sea level rise.

Learn more about the Ecosystems Center