Wetland Ecology Then and Now

Elizabeth Watson remembers the exact moment she decided where she wanted to spend the rest of her life. As an 8-year-old, she took a tour of the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, a haven at the southern tip of the San Francisco Bay. She doesn’t know whether it was the moist, salty air brushing her face, the waterfowl foraging through the vegetation, or the hazy stillness of the marsh, but she felt an immediate and deep connection to the wetlands.

Child in WetlandsToday Watson keeps a picture from that day in her Academy office as a reminder of the place her career got its start. A pushpin hole and gray adhesive marks are evidence of the photo’s importance, carried with her from workplace to field station.

In the photograph, Watson is standing on a bridge in front of a solitary stand of California bulrush, an inundation-tolerant marsh plant that is a legacy of the wetland loss of the 1940s and 50s. The photo was taken in the exact spot where she would later conduct graduate-level research on the historical formation and expansion of the wetlands.

Watson appreciates wetlands for their aesthetic value; she is captivated by their resplendence and the patterns of the tidal channels. But on a practical level, wetlands have real value to the environment, and she is just as passionate about wetland ecology and conservation.

Scientist in fieldWetlands are biologically diverse areas teeming with waterfowl, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates. They provide food and shelter for a variety of wildlife, as well as resources for commercial and recreational fishing and other activities.

“Fringing coastal wetlands can help protect us from storms by absorbing high wind and wave energy and soaking up floodwaters,” she says. “Wetlands store a lot of carbon, which if oxidized, would be a huge amount of emissions. They truly help mitigate the effects of climate change.”

Yet wetlands are disappearing and drowning at an alarming rate. Wetland loss is a crucial issue, one that has only been on researchers’ radars for a few decades, if that, Watson says. Rising sea level as well as changes in water quality, ecosystem structure, hydrology, sediment transport, and the introduction of non-native species by humans have altered the landscape. Wetlands are often targeted for drainage and conversion in both developed and developing countries where land for new construction is in short supply.

Scientist in MarshWatson can literally feel the changes as she wades through the marsh. As section leader in the Academy’s Patrick Center for Environmental Research since December 2014, she travels to Barnegat Bay, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania several times a year to monitor soil, marsh elevation, plant biomass, and species composition. The most difficult part of her job is carrying her gear through the region’s marshes. Marsh soils that used to be firm and easy to navigate are becoming soupy and hard to traverse because of waterlogging and decomposition. Unable to resist erosion, this mushy composition threatens the future of the marsh.

Home to food sources such as blue crabs and waterfowl and serving as passageways for treated sewage, wetlands display a clear imprint of human activity. As an assistant professor in Drexel University’s Department of Biodiversity, Earth & Environmental Science, Watson wants her students to gain a deep understanding of our place in the environment and the natural processes that sustain us. She recently took students on a field trip to the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, the largest remaining freshwater tidal marsh in Pennsylvania. Some of the students were amazed by the diversity and beauty of the marsh and clearly connected with the place, writing about the marsh in their research papers and proposing potential research projects.

Watson and her team have no trouble recruiting students and Academy scientists to accompany them on field research days.

“The Academy has been involved with wetland monitoring for several years, and even people who are casually involved have seen the changes that are occurring—increased ponding, plant die-backs, and major erosion,” Watson says. “While the days are long and the work is muddy, people really get how vulnerable these places are, and how important the data collection efforts are.”

Yet there is hope for the future, Watson says, and scientists and governments are studying these changes and putting coastal management and protection programs in place to guard coastal ecosystems and communities against sea-level rise and storms.

“The potential for transformation is exciting,” Watson says, “and as a wetland scientist I have an important role to play in envisioning the future of our coasts.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2016 issue of Academy Frontiers.

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