Bringing the world's buried wetlands back from the dead

Canada geese swim across a prairie pothole in June near Lake City, S.D. Despite their mind-boggling numbers — several million potholes are spread across a region that covers portions of five states and three Canadian provinces — these wetlands are steadily blinking out, being drained or plowed under one by one.

HINDOLVESTON, England (AP) — The ghosts are all around the gently rolling farmlands of eastern England. But you have to know where to look.

These are not the kind of phantoms that scare or haunt — they are ghost ponds. Over the years, landowners buried them, filling in wetlands so they had more land for planting crops or fulfilling other needs, or let their ponds fade away with neglect. Along with those ponds, they erased entire ecosystems — and contributed to the decline of wetlands worldwide.

The result: an array of environmental calamities, ranging from rising floods to species hurtling toward extinction.

There are some who are trying to reclaim these lost bodies of water. In eastern England, a motley team of farmers, university researchers and conservationists is digging into the region’s barley and wheat fields to turn back the clock.

With chain saws, an excavator and plenty of sweat, it takes just a few hours to resurrect one dying pond near Hindolveston, a thousand-year-old village not far from the North Sea. Volunteers fell trees and shrubs, then start digging until they reach their goal: an ancient pond bottom that once supported insects, aquatic plants and the birds and animals that feed on them.

“As soon as they get water and light, they just spring to life,” said Nick Anema, a farmer from nearby Dereham who has restored seven ponds on his property. “You’ve got frogs and toads and newts, all the insects like mayflies, dragonflies, damselflies.”

Anema described how his view of farming differs markedly from his father’s, who regarded the natural world as an obstacle to overcome. For Anema, farming and preservation are inextricably linked.

“You can’t really beat a pond,” he said.

After ghost ponds are dug out, seeds from long-buried water plants come to life, including those in a pond on Anema’s farm that had been filled in some 150 years ago.

“They’ve done just what we hoped,” said Carl Sayer, a researcher at University College London. “They’re wonderful, healthy, vibrant ponds.”

But the battle for wetlands is a struggle. While efforts are underway to stem losses and regain some of what has been lost, wetlands around the world continue to be filled in and plowed over.

Since the start of the 20th century, 75% of the United Kingdom’s ponds have been lost.

Almost 90% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared over the past three centuries, according to the Ramsar Convention, an organization formed around a 1971 treaty to protect wetlands. And the losses have accelerated since the 1970s.

The consequences are profound: wetland-dependent species threatened with extinction, more severe flooding and the release of huge amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Climate change threatens to worsen the problem. Warmer temperatures and changing rainfall patterns can trigger drought, leading to more pumping of water reserves that would otherwise feed surface wetlands, scientists say.

“We now know the value of wetlands, and we know with increasing precision how many wetlands we’re losing. The next step is for the governments to act,” said Royal Gardner, director of the Institute for Biodiversity Law and Policy at Stetson University in Florida.

A few hours of heavy rain in North Dakota are all it takes to transform the dry, cracked earth of the prairie into thousands upon thousands of pocket-sized wetlands. The rain pools in shallow depressions known as prairie potholes and quickly flushes out insects in the soil. Each pothole becomes a haven for ducks.

But to farmers, these wetlands carved into the earth by glaciers some 10,000 years ago can be adversaries. They bog down tractors and can leave patches of lifeless stalks in young crops.

Some farmers steer around them, planting in swirling patterns to avoid wet areas. Other times, the wetlands are filled in.

Despite their mind-boggling numbers — several million potholes are spread across a region that covers portions of five states and three Canadian provinces — these wetlands are steadily blinking out. One by one, they’re being drained or plowed under.

Only human-made wetlands buck the trend toward global decline. Rice paddies, reservoirs and agricultural stock ponds all increased in acreage since the 1970s, according to Ramsar.

Barton Schott, a third-generation farmer in the small community of Kulm, North Dakota, recently installed networks of perforated pipes beneath some of his fields to drain off standing water. Under federal regulations, he must offset the losses by installing a berm across a low area in a different field to create a small pond.

The guiding principle is to have “no net loss” of U.S. wetlands. A similar tactic has been adopted in China.

Yet scientists are concerned that the approach papers over significant differences between natural wetlands and those created by humans. That’s because constructing ponds or reservoirs with water year-round doesn’t fulfill the same ecological role as the smaller wetlands they replace.

“People brag about the fact that there’s been no net loss,” said Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecology professor at Duke University. “But what they’ve done is destroy natural wetlands and created artificial ones.”

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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