Celebrated on February 2nd, World Wetland Day has been recognized each year since 1971. This day marks the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands, based out of Ramsar which is located on the shores of the Caspian Sea between Europe and Asia. The goal for this day is to raise awareness on the importance of wetlands, including coastal wetlands and wetland conservation.
CLOSER TO HOME
On a more local focus, in the devastating wake of both Hurricanes Irma and Maria, coastal and other environmental conservation efforts have taken a blow in the Caribbean. With the anthropocentric warming of the earth’s atmosphere from greenhouse gas emissions, the atmosphere captures more solar radiation, therefore warming the Earth. With the warming of average global temperatures, warmer air can hold more water than colder air can, giving power to stronger tropical storms like hurricanes(1). Such storms are what crashed into the Caribbean and southeastern U.S. mid-September 2017. Global climate change is one reason we can expect future devastating tropical storms, which is why it is important for us to learn about conservation efforts now.
Co-author of 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Sustainability: Connecting the Environment, the Economy and Society, Renee Harmon speaks to changes we may be able to make to try to reduce our carbon footprint to get one step ahead of these storms and why it may pose a challenge for so many of us:
“I believe for most people, once they learn about a sustainable behavior, they try to correct an unsustainable behavior… I always say that while we are addressing sustainability, we have to remember that self-sustainability is important too. As we consider the needs of society, we also have to compare those against personal needs. It boils down to choices and what a person considers is most important to them. This may change over time, or it may not. The most important thing is that a person has the education so they can make a logical choice, whatever that may be.”
One U.S. Caribbean island in particular has faced heavy impacts from the hurricanes and has been a headline for the past two months: Puerto Rico. Because of the very few, small wetlands left on the islands, there are few natural “sponges” to retain the stormwater when hurricanes hit. This water in turn, flooded and flowed everywhere else it could, which meant heavy damage to property including large appliances, vehicles, infrastructure, and landscapes. Water that flows off of the island is not as filtered as it otherwise could be. Natural coastal vegetation isn’t as abundant, and pollution runs off into the ocean, as agricultural processes lack sustainable practices and coastal vegetation is removed to accommodate tourists for their beaches. People have been living in poor conditions with intermittent electricity and water for the past 4 months.
When questioned about people living in an area where a particular land feature was lost (like mangroves on the coast or riparian areas near wetlands) due to human encroachment and expansion, why do you think we continue that behavior? Renee Harmon responded with:
“I would question if people know where they are moving to. If someone is new to the area they may not be aware of the history of the land (e.g., I’ve heard of many people buying houses built on former landfills). Another consideration is that the price of the homes built on this land, such as the wetlands of northern Illinois. Are these homes more affordable? Are people buying them due to location of work? Schools? Obviously living in a flooded area is not a selling point, so I would try to figure out what the selling points are and that would help me determine why people are willing to live on the land. I always try to analyze an issue using the Triple Bottom Line (economic, environmental, and social dimensions).”
BEING REACTIVE AND PROACTIVE
A research field station in El Yunque is actively trying to raise money for rebuilding facilities after hurricanes Irma and Maria since federal efforts have failed to successfully assist in recovery(2). As federal funding for conservation efforts have worn thin and the US failed to sign the UN Paris Climate Change Agreement, we may see recovery efforts at an all time low, just as natural disasters may only worsen. Thankfully, there are organizations like The Nature Conservancy and the Resilient Islands Program, along with the Caribbean Challenge Initiative which strive to lessen the impact of climate change (4,3). The Caribbean Challenge Initiative through the Nature Conservancy teamed up with local governments to establish protection of at least 20% of their near shore environments by 2020. Efforts began in 2008 with the aid of corporations funding the initiative for the betterment of coastal management and the Caribbean’s resources (4,5).
As we try our hardest to remain proactive, it can be difficult to truly understand how our actions are causing harm. Renee Harmon offers her advice:
“I suggest communities look at how they are educating their citizens on conservation and sustainability topics (such as the need for wetlands). How are initiatives being promoted? Are school systems involved? Colleges? Businesses and other private organizations? What is the culture and perception of the community members? Once you know that you can work on new approaches to education and marketing.”