And to the surprise of some scientists, they seem to be losing.
Schoenoplectus americanus, or chairmaker's rush, is a common wetland plant in the Americas, and it has an existential problem. He chose to live in a place where he is always at risk of drowning.
Like all plants, cattails need oxygen to produce energy. One solution is obvious: send the shoots skyward like straws to draw oxygen down to the roots. But the cattail also employs a more unusual strategy: raising the soil on which it grows. The plant builds its roots near the surface, where they trap sediment and organic mud that drains into the bog. Finally, the entire ecosystem is a little larger and the cattail does not drown.
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"We often call them ecosystem engineers," says Pat Megonigal, an ecologist who directs the Smithsonian's Global Change Research Wetland and studies plants. “If the water gets deep, they have the ability to get up. And, in fact, here in this swamp, they've been doing it for 4,000 years.
Wetland researchers have long wondered if this ability could help plants cope with climate change.
As sea levels rise, leading to stronger and more frequent storm surges, the risk of drowning plants also increases. But rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are also a boon to plants' basement-building project, providing more fuel for photosynthesis and helping them build larger roots. For 30 years, Megonigal and his predecessors have watched this marathon unfold in a single Maryland swamp on the Chesapeake Bay. It is a duel between the rise of the sea and the growth of plants, two forces with a common origin - humans are burning fossil fuels, adding more CO2 to the air - and at this point the result becomes clear: wetlands lose.
These findings, published last week in Science Advances, overturn some of the most optimistic assumptions about how coastal areas might adapt to rising sea levels. Wetlands are important ecosystems in their own right, mediating the flow of nutrients between land and sea. They also punch their weight in carbon storage, storing it in dense peat soils in concentrations that exceed those found in tropical forests. But the fate of these areas is uncertain in the face of climate change. By the end of the century, estimates suggest that climate-induced changes could lead to 20-50% loss of these ecosystems. The ability of wetlands to rise above rising waters is a key factor in determining whether they can persist where they are or whether they will have to migrate inland.
"Wow. We've always thought that high CO2 would help stabilize salt marshes, and this work really challenges that idea," says Matthew Kirwan, an ecologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences who studies the evolution of coastal landscapes. old experiments are almost unknown and, in this case, fundamentally change our understanding of wetland ecosystems."