Opinion - Mimi O’Handley: Why protecting Nova Scotia’s wetlands matters when it comes to climate change

Originally published in the Chronicle Herald on Feb. 2, 2022

Today is World Wetlands Day! This is a day to honour these incredible natural features, and to reflect on the importance of protecting wetlands.

While the benefits of wetlands might not be immediately obvious, they do a lot for our little province. They offer crucial habitat for thousands of species of plants and animals. Many are significant cultural and spiritual places for the Mi’kmaw people. And wetlands are essential for the resiliency of our communities and the natural environment against the impacts of an increasingly unstable climate both globally and locally here in Mi’kma’ki/Nova Scotia.      

So, what is a wetland? Wetlands are low-lying areas of land that gather fresh or saltwater. They can be quite small or span very large areas. They’re home to thousands of species of plants, mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles. And just like some forests, coastal environments and marine areas, wetlands are a form of nature-based climate solutions.   

It’s hard to ignore the frightening impacts of climate change we’re seeing across Canada, and we know that Nova Scotians will feel these impacts more frequently and severely each year. We’re on the path of increasingly stronger hurricanes and post-tropical storms, we can expect to receive increasingly higher levels of rainfall, and to top it all off, we’re experiencing the highest level of relative sea rise in Canada. Not only are the sea levels rising, but our province is actually sinking due to glacial activity.   

These impacts are evident in recent weather events like the severe floods that Nalikitquniejk /Antigonish and Unama'ki /Cape Breton experienced in the fall of 2021. Because we’re inadequately prepared for future climate events, there is an urgent need to act on climate change adaptation. 

Wetlands can absorb large amounts of rainfall, replenishing groundwater and providing protection against both floods and droughts. Since they reduce damaging wind, wave, and current actions, coastal wetlands also protect communities and infrastructure during hurricanes and other severe weather events. In addition, wetlands, particularly salt marshes, store significant amounts of carbon in their soils, helping to mitigate climate change. In terms of economic impact, a study published in 2020 suggests carbon sequestration in wetlands may provide $10 billion worth of benefits to Nova Scotia. 

Unfortunately, human activity has destroyed almost two-thirds of the world’s wetlands since 1900. When wetlands are destroyed, not only are their benefits lost, but the carbon released from their soils further aggravates climate change. 

In Mi’kma’ki/Nova Scotia, the biggest threat to wetlands is their destruction and degradation by development. This includes residential, industrial and infrastructure projects, as well as large-scale economic projects such as open-pit gold mining. Wetlands are also threatened by excessive polluted run-off, poor stormwater management and inappropriate ATV use.   

Since 2011, The Nova Scotia Wetland Conservation Policy has helped to provide protection and guidelines. Nevertheless, destruction and degradation continue at a time when we can’t afford to lose more wetlands. Environmental legislation and policy should be strengthened to better protect wetlands from human-caused threats. This needs to be done in collaboration with Indigenous communities and be based on the scientific consensus that wetlands are critically important to help our communities adapt to climate change.   

This World Wetlands Day, let’s all celebrate by learning more about our local wetlands and taking action to help protect them. Contact your elected officials and demand stronger protection for wetlands. Have conversations with neighbours on the importance of wetlands located on private property. And don’t hesitate to advocate against harmful development projects that threaten to destroy our wetlands.   

Start now by visiting the Ecology Action Centre’s website to discover some educational tools and great World Wetlands Day 2022 events being held across Mi’kma’ki/Nova Scotia.  

By protecting these amazing natural spaces, we’re protecting ourselves and our future.

Mimi O’Handley is wetlands and water officer with Ecology Action Centre.

Link to source: MIMI O’HANDLEY: Why protecting Nova Scotia’s wetlands matters when it comes to climate change

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