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Great Lakes Article:

Keeping Wetlands Wet-
Wetlands can store huge amounts of a greenhouse gas, but only as long as they stay wet.


By Kathleen Schmitt

Article courtesy of Great Lakes Radio Consortium

August 21, 2001

Wetlands around the world provide homes to all kinds of fish and waterfowl, and they're also important because of what they lock up within their boggy borders. It's a whole load of carbon - so much that it's measured in billions of tons. Researchers have now found that only one chemical reaction keeps all that carbon from entering the atmosphere and adding to global warming.

Chris Freeman wrote a paper on this subject that appeared in the journal Nature. Freeman is a biologist at the University of Wales. He says all plants absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, and they usually release that carbon once they die and decompose. But Freeman says dead waterlogged plants in wetlands don't decompose much. As a result, wetlands are storing a huge amount of carbon - as much as what is already in the atmosphere.

Freeman says natural chemicals inhibit decomposition in wetlands. But he recently discovered that these inhibitors could be destroyed by a single type of enzyme. These enzymes are found in all wetlands, but Freeman says they're usually inactive.

"What could happen in the future, though, is that something could actually trigger these enzymes to come back into action. If that did happen, it would actually remove all of the inhibitors, and it would allow all of the other enzymes in the system to start breaking down this vast accumulation of stored up carbon dioxide and release it back into the atmosphere."

Freeman says this could happen if global warming dries out the wetlands and exposes them to air. Oxygen would activate the enzyme, and that would release the stored carbon into the atmosphere and probably make global warming worse. To prevent this, Freeman says wetlands need to be protected and global warming needs to be controlled.


 

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