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Dramatic loss of globe’s wetlands

Researchers analyzing more than one million satellite images have discovered 4,000 square kilometers of tidal wetlands have been lost globally over twenty years – but ecosystem restoration and natural processes are playing a part in reducing total losses.

Dr. Nicholas Murray, Senior Lecturer and head of James Cook University’s Global Ecology Lab, led the study. He said global change and human actions are driving rapid changes of tidal wetlands — tidal marshes, mangroves, and tidal flats — worldwide.

“But efforts to estimate their current and future status at the global scale remain highly unclear due to uncertainty about how tidal wetlands respond to drivers of change.

“We wanted to address that, so we developed a machine-learning analysis of vast archives of historical satellite images to detect the extent, timing, and type of change across the world’s tidal wetlands between 1999 and 2019,” said Dr. Murray.

TropWATER’s Nathan Waltham, and co-author on the study, said wetland loss in the Great Barrier Reef was a major concern.

“Coastal wetlands provide many services such as habitat for fish, cultural values, carbon storage, and water quality,” said Dr. Waltham.

“We are working closely with many partners including NRM groups, farmers, Land and Sea Ranger groups, government, and industry to protect and restore coastal wetlands at home here – but it is a big job and much work is needed.”

Dr. Murray said that globally, 13,700 square kilometers of tidal wetlands were lost, offset by gains of 9,700 square kilometers, leading to a net loss of 4,000 square kilometers over the two-decade period.

“We found 27 percent of losses and gains were associated with direct human activities, such as conversion to agriculture and restoration of lost wetlands. All other changes were attributed to indirect drivers such as human impacts to river catchments, extensive development in the coastal zone, coastal subsidence, natural coastal processes, and climate change,” said Dr. Murray.

He said about three-quarters of the net global tidal wetland decrease happened in Asia, with almost 70 percent of that total concentrated in Indonesia, China, and Myanmar.

“Asia is the global center of tidal wetland loss from direct human activities. These activities had a lesser role in the losses of tidal wetlands in Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Oceania, where coastal wetland dynamics were driven by indirect factors such as wetland migration, coastal modifications, and catchment change,” said Dr. Murray.

The scientists found that almost three-quarters of tidal wetland loss globally has been offset by establishing new tidal wetlands in areas where they formerly did not occur – with notable expansion in the Ganges and Amazon deltas.

“Most new areas of tidal wetlands were the result of indirect drivers, highlighting the prominent role that broad-scale coastal processes have in maintaining tidal wetland extent and facilitating natural regeneration. This result indicates that we need to allow for the movement and migration of coastal wetlands to account for rapid global change,” said Dr. Murray.

He said over one billion people now live in low-elevation coastal areas globally.

“Tidal wetlands are of immense importance to humanity, providing benefits such as carbon storage and sequestration, coastal protection, and fisheries enhancement.

“Global-scale monitoring is now essential if we are going to manage changes in coastal environments effectively,” said Dr. Murray.


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