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Don’t drain the swamp! Arctic wetlands threatened by climate change and human impacts

25 October 2021

This article originally appeared in The Circle: The Climate Crisis: There's No Going Back. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

Effective stewardship of Arctic wetlands, including conservation and restoration efforts, has enormous potential to buy the world time by contributing to climate mitigation and adaptation. A new circumpolar report and recommendations adopted by the Arctic Council Ministerial in Reykjavik, Iceland, highlight the importance of Arctic wetlands. As MARCUS CARSON explains, the report also identifies actions to support the conservation and restoration of wetlands.

IF YOU’RE A regular reader of The Circle, you probably already know that wetlands, including Arctic wetlands, are incredibly important for bird migration, wildlife habitat and biodiversity generally, and for water-related ecosystems services and support of recreational activities and traditional livelihoods.

What’s less widely known is that they store a stunning amount of carbon. Unfortunately, their role as a carbon sink is threatened by both the climate crisis and increasing human impacts in the Arctic. Peatlands, tundra and thawing permafrost all release carbon when they are dried, damaged or thawing.

But actions can be taken to conserve and even restore these areas. In April 2021, the Arctic Council Ministerial in Reykjavik adopted a suite of recommendations and strategic priorities that could help expand and accelerate conservation and restoration.

WORKING TO PREVENT IRREVERSIBLE CHANGES

Many of the Earth’s wetlands are found in the Arctic, but there are also large expanses of degraded wetlands in boreal zones, where they can be affected by drainage or peat mining. Climate change and permafrost thaw are causing irreversible changes to these ecosystems. While the only way to avoid large emissions of wetland greenhouse gases is to slow human emissions globally, restoring damaged and degraded wetlands can slow this process by substantially reducing current emissions.

For example, through nature-based interventions—such as the restoration, rewetting and establishment of wetlands—Sweden is emphasizing wetlands from 2021 to 2023 to help achieve its national goal of zero emissions by 2045. Finland, Norway and Iceland have similar initiatives underway.

The Resilience and Management of Arctic Wetlands: Key Findings and Recommendations report provides 13 key findings and a suite of 20 policy recommendations designed to maintain and strengthen the resilience of wetlands, all aimed at policy-makers and observers participating in the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting. The recommendations outline a variety of actions to strengthen cooperation, facilitate collaboration and accelerate efforts to restore and conserve Arctic wetland areas, including permafrost. The background report on which the recommendations were based shows quite clearly that we know enough about wetlands ecosystems to support ambitious action. The weak link is the adoption and implementation of policies that prioritize the conservation of wetlands.

A BREAKTHROUGH FOR WETLANDS CONSERVATION

Many of the findings and recommendations in the report are also highly relevant outside the Arctic, and Arctic states have an important opportunity to act as role models for the sustainable use of wetlands. This is the first time the Arctic states have engaged in a pan-Arctic effort to conserve wetlands, and their actions could boost global efforts to curb climate change. The adoption of recommendations and strategic goals for wetlands represents a breakthrough, in part because the Arctic Council has previously steered away from engaging on climate change, taking the view that it is being addressed in other multilateral
fora. This kind of action is possible, and especially important, given the change of administration in the United States. As part of the country’s climate mitigation plans, the Biden government is prioritizing actions to restrain climate change, including the restoration and conservation of wetlands.

Addressing the degradation of Arctic wetlands will be an important Arctic-specific contribution to curbing the global emissions that are driving climate change, and will provide insights and experience that reach beyond the Arctic region.

While the role of wetlands in climate change remains underappreciated, there are a few areas where ecosystem stewardship—restoration, conservation and wise use under changing conditions—can address many critical issues at once, including climate
mitigation and adaptation, biodiversity protection and water-based ecosystem services. Clearly, there is no time to lose.

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Developing Resilience and Management of Arctic Wetlands: Key Findings and Recommendations: a collaborative effort

The report’s recommendations were a team effort, developed in collaboration and with input from international participants, including WWF. Contributions came from wetland experts, Indigenous Peoples, policymakers and NGO representatives across the Arctic. Researchers from Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (Naturvårdsverket), Stockholm University and Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) led the work. The report was produced within the Resilience and Management of Arctic Wetlands initiative 2017–2021 and supported by an SEI-led international project funded through the Belmont Forum, a WWF partner.

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MARCUS CARSON has worked on questions related to social-ecological systems in the Arctic for nearly a decade. He is an associate professor of sociology and a senior research fellow at Stockholm Environment Institute.