- Coastal wetlands help improve local water quality.Olifants river wetland in savannah, Kruger National Park image by Lars Lachmann from Fotolia.com
An ecosystem can be thought of as a discrete unit on the landscape, consisting of certain plants, animals and climate that are unique to that location. Forests, wetlands, prairies and the oceans are all different ecosystems that provide unique services that are vital to life on earth. From these ecosystems, the human population obtains clear air to breathe, clean water to drink and food to sustain an increasing population.
- One of the most important aspects of ecosystems is their ability to improve water quality. Wetlands are unique ecosystems that exist at the interface of terrestrial and aquatic systems. Because of their location in the landscape, they are able intercept nutrients and sediments before they enter open-water systems. The ability to capture nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and sediment helps to minimize degradation of coastal waters. Excess sediment can block incoming sunlight in shallow water, thereby preventing submerged aquatic vegetation from photosynthesizing. Furthermore, the flux of nitrogen and phosphorus spurs algae growth, which can also block incoming sunlight. Additionally, when these algae die, they are consumed in the water by microbes, which consume oxygen in the process. This phenomenon is a seasonal occurrence in the Gulf of Mexico, where nutrients from the Midwestern states are transported through the Mississippi River and into the Gulf.
- All ecosystems directly contribute to local, regional and global climate patterns. Plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that has risen in atmospheric concentration since the Industrial Revolution due primarily to the combustion of fossil fuels. Ecosystems such as wetlands and grasslands store large amount of organic matter, particularly carbon, in the soil. When this organic matter is disturbed through fire or human-induced alteration to the landscape, it is converted to carbon dioxide and emitted to the atmosphere.
- Everyone has the opportunity to conserve, restore and improve ecosystems. Simple actions include picking up garbage and cutting back on pesticide applications to your lawn, which can be carried to nearby streams, lakes and rivers. Planting trees and shrubs can help improve soil quality and help slow the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide. There are also many organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy, that accept donations and apply them to conservation and ecosystem improvement projects, such as restoring native habitats.