Restoration Ecology as a science has always made me a bit squeamish. Simply put, it’s the study of how we fix the things we break. It’s not that I don’t see the need to fix the damage; I just worry that the ability to rebuild ecosystems to an identical level of diversity and productivity will mean that more destruction will be allowed in the first place. “We’ll just fix it afterwards” has always been a great excuse to avoid conserving things in the first place.
Good news first! There are some key things that can improve how wetlands recover, and we can use that to help guide repair efforts and to figure out how much of an area may need to be preserved to keep existing ecosystems healthy.
1) Big is better.
Large wetlands recover more quickly than smaller wetlands. They can support more individuals (and larger ones) overall, and in addition may have higher quality ecologies surrounding them. The size where the best recoveries were made was with wetlands larger than 100 hectares.
2) Everyone likes a little sun.
Tropical wetlands recovered more quickly than temperate wetlands. For example, when compared with virgin wetlands, tropical wetlands were recovered to within 79 percent of normal nutrient levels after 30 years. For cold climate wetlands, they were at 53% of normal levels after 50 years.
On a more mixed note, any wetland with flowing water – rivers, lakes, or estuaries – recovers much more quickly than in peat bogs. While bogs are able to regain a large amount of the animals and plants relatively quickly, the chemical processes at work take way longer to get going.
This is a something I find really interesting, though. Bog ecologies are tough environments – their acidic soils and low nutrients limit what can live there. These harsh conditions may mean that these areas are more protected against the sort of animals and plants that would normally come in after a disturbance – their own particular species are much better suited to live there. Another thing that would be cool to find out is whether the bog still has viable seeds in it even after the surface peat has been mined out – is it effectively re-seeding itself with the plants that were there before? Bogs may be a key to understanding what factors hold back recovery of other ecosystems because of their own limitations.
If we can find out what factors are slowing down the rates of restoration, we may be able to improve them with methods such as seeding soils with particular fungi or working to achieve the best nutrient balance for the communities. People aren’t going to stop tearing up wetlands anytime soon, so we have to know how to restore these vital ecosystems as best we can. Plus, it’ll be good practice for when we have to try and restore all the hydrothermal vents that the mining companies are drooling over right now.
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