In restored wetland ecosystems with apparently natural hydrology and biological structure, biogeochemical function may remain degraded, even a century after restoration efforts.
Wetlands are among the most productive and economically valuable ecosystems in the world. However, because of human activities, over half of the wetland ecosystems existing in North America, Europe, Australia, and China in the early 20th century have been lost. Ecological restoration to recover critical ecosystem services has been widely attempted, but the degree of actual recovery of ecosystem functioning and structure from these efforts remains uncertain. Our results from a meta-analysis of 621 wetland sites from throughout the world show that even a century after restoration efforts, biological structure (driven mostly by plant assemblages), and biogeochemical functioning (driven primarily by the storage of carbon in wetland soils), remained on average 26% and 23% lower, respectively, than in reference sites. Either recovery has been very slow, or postdisturbance systems have moved towards alternative states that differ from reference conditions. We also found significant effects of environmental settings on the rate and degree of recovery. Large wetland areas (>100 ha) and wetlands restored in warm (temperate and tropical) climates recovered more rapidly than smaller wetlands and wetlands restored in cold climates. Also, wetlands experiencing more (riverine and tidal) hydrologic exchange recovered more rapidly than depressional wetlands. Restoration performance is limited: current restoration practice fails to recover original levels of wetland ecosystem functions, even after many decades. If restoration as currently practiced is used to justify further degradation, global loss of wetland ecosystem function and structure will spread.
Wetlands, which include tropical mangroves and boreal peatlands, are among the most valuable ecosystems in the world because they provide critical ecosystem goods and services, such as carbon storage, biodiversity conservation, fish production, water purification, and erosion control. As global change accelerates the loss of wetlands, attempts are increasing to restore this fragile habitat and its associated functioning. There has been no global evaluation, however, of how effective such restoration efforts have been. Here, we present a meta-analysis of the biological structure (driven mostly by plant communities) and biogeochemical functioning (driven primarily by the storage of carbon in wetland soils) of 621 wetland sites. Our analysis suggests that even a century after restoration efforts, these parameters remained on average 26% and 23% (respectively) lower in restored or created wetlands than in reference wetlands. Our results also indicate that ecosystem size and the environmental setting significantly affect the rate of recovery. Recovery may be more likely and more rapid if more than 100 contiguous hectares of habitat are restored. In warm climates, and in settings linked to riverine or tidal flows, recovery can also proceed more rapidly. In general, however, once disturbed, wetlands either recover very slowly or move towards alternative states that differ from reference conditions. Thus, current restoration practice and wetland mitigation policies will maintain and likely accelerate the global loss of wetland ecosystem functions.