Feb. 2 is World Wetlands Day, a holiday that has promoted global appreciation and protection of wetlands for 41 years. It commemorates an international treaty signed in 1971, the Ramsar Convention, that aims to conserve swamps, marshes and bogs around the world, from Albania to Mexico to Zambia.
But despite its wide reach — the treaty now covers 520 million acres of wetlands in more than 160 countries — it always seems to get overshadowed in the U.S. by Groundhog Day, which also falls on Feb. 2 every year.
The focus on celebrity rodents doesn't necessarily mean Americans are indifferent about World Wetlands Day, though. There's even some overlap: "Olentangy Olga," a muskrat mascot for Ohio State University's Olentangy River Wetland Research Park, is touted by the school as "Ohio State's answer to Punxsutawney Phil."
A few U.S. environmental groups are also observing the holiday, including America's Wetland Foundation. There's also a World Wetlands Day Youth Photo Contest, sponsored by the Ramsar Convention and Star Alliance Biosphere Connections.
Yet despite such publicity, U.S. wetlands are still in dire straits. A 2011 federal study estimated the U.S. lost 62,300 acres of wetlands between 2004 and 2009, a loss rate 140 percent higher than from 1998 to 2004. That cuts the contiguous U.S. down to about 110 million total acres, and much of that faces subtle dangers like hypoxia due to water pollution. Invasive species are another growing threat, whether it's pythons in the Everglades or nutria in New Orleans.
"Wetlands are at a tipping point," U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement last fall. "While we have made great strides in conserving and restoring wetlands since the 1950s ... we remain on a downward trend that is alarming."
Of course, all this isn't really Groundhog Day's fault. Wetland degradation pre-dates the rise of Punxsutawney Phil, and many other countries have similar or worse problems without the distraction of marmot meteorologists. It's a global issue that needs more than a day of attention, especially as the planet grows warmer. The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that "wetlands are among the ecosystems most vulnerable to climate change."
And that's not just bad news for egrets and otters. Wetlands offer humans an array of "ecosystem services," from flood control and groundwater replenishment to water purification and nutrient storage. They also boost biodiversity, which has its own set of benefits, and they can be a big draw for tourists. In fact, the theme of World Wetlands Day 2012 is "Wetlands and Tourism," part of the Ramsar Convention's mission to promote a sustainable human presence in wetlands, something it calls "wise use."
In case you can't personally visit a wetland on Feb. 2 (maybe your local groundhog says it's too cold), here's a photo tribute in honor of World Wetlands Day:
Male Anhinga facing the wind to dry off. Viera Wetlands, Viera, Florida. (Photo: Maureen Leong-Kee/flickr)
Baby bog turtle; northern New Jersey, U.S. (Photo: Rosie Walunas/USFWS/flickr)
Geese flying over a marsh; Dundee, Ill., U.S. (Photo: James Jordan/flickr)
Whooping cranes flying over farmland; Kentucky, U.S. (Photo: Operation Migration/USFWS)
American alligator, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. (Photo: Mike Fisher/flickr)
Muskrat at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, Wyoming. (Photo: USFWS Mountain-Prairie/flickr)
Malagasy kingfisher; Antananarivo, Madagascar (Photo: Frank Vassen/flickr)
Northern leopard frog, Ontario, Canada. (Photo: Ryan Hodnett/flickr)
Great blue heron; San Francisco, Calif., U.S. (Photo: nate bolt/flickr)