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Protecting wetlands biodiversity for a better world

November 10, 2020

Huai Chen beside glacial lake on Tibetan Plateau

The riverbanks he played by as a child set Huai Chen on a path to global recognition for his work in wetlands biodiversity

Pictured above: Prof Huai Chen on the shore of a glacial lake on the Tibetan Plateau.

For Prof. Huai Chenopens in new tab/window, winner of this year’s ASPIRE Prizeopens in new tab/window for his research on wetlands biodiversity, wetlands have been a lifelong source of fascination. His work focuses on enhancing understanding of the wetlands and their importance to people, as well as protecting them and developing their capacity to absorb carbon.

The prize — also known as the APEC Science Prize for Innovation, Research and Education – has been cosponsored by Elsevier and Wiley since its inception in 2011. This year’s theme was “Biodiversity for a Prosperous Economy,” in recognition of the critical role biodiversity plays in human health and prosperity. It was awarded based on both commitment to excellence in scientific research and cooperation with other APEC scientists.

Finalists are nominated by their APEC member economies, and the winner is selected based on their commitment to excellence in scientific research as evidenced by scholarly publication and their cooperation with scientists from other APEC economies.

“The prize is a very high-ranking award for me and also an honor for our group,” says Dr Chen, Professor of Ecology at Chengdu Institute of Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciencesopens in new tab/window. “In the future, this topic of biodiversity for economic prosperity will help our group focus on the wetlands’ contribution to people.”

“Wetlands are important but very endangered.”

For Dr Chen, protecting the wetlands and their rich biodiversity is vital to ensuring a better future for humanity and can leave the world in better shape for future generations. It helps their ecosystems thrive and continue to provide food and water for living organisms and humans, as well as offering protection against flooding and helping to mitigate climate change and repair the damage already done to the environment, among other things.

“Wetlands are wet and biologically diverse lands,” Prof Chen says. In their entirety, they are estimated to cover an area larger than Canada but have lost 30 percent of their coverage in the last 50 years:

Wetlands are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the earth. However, 81 percent of inland wetland species populations have declined since 1970. In a word, wetlands are important but very endangered.

Wetlands are home to many varieties of plants, animals and fish, as well as being a water and nutrition source for wildlife and humans, including the rice grown in paddy fields that is a food staple for half of the planet. Wetlands are estimated to cover about 6 percent of the earth’s surface and are nature’s most able holders of carbon, helping to mitigate climate change by storing carbon instead of releasing it into the air as carbon dioxide. Peatlands alone, which cover just 3 percent of the world’s surface, store twice as much carbon as all the trees of the world’s forests, explains Prof Chen, much of whose work has focused on carbon storage:

Carbon storage is the important ecological function of wetlands. Therefore how to stabilize this substantial carbon stock and put even more carbon into wetland soil is our research priority under global climate change.

For the past 10 years, Prof Chen’s team and APEC colleagues have been monitoring and modeling greenhouse gases and the carbon stock of wetlands, with highly impactful results. “Based on our collaborative research, in recent years, we published more than 70 papers in high impact journals,” he says. “They have been cited more than 2,000 times, and two of them are recognized as highly cited papers in related fields.”

The importance of his work reaches far beyond the journals. The wetlands hold riches for humanity in practical livelihood and economic terms. “The wetlands are good for prosperity and the data shows this,” Prof Chen explains. “Rice paddies are part of the wetlands, and 3.5 billion people depend on rice as a food staple. The livelihoods of almost 700 million people depend on fishing, and wetlands tourism has created 266 million jobs.”

Tourism and production of traditional local products have greatly improved the quality of life of people who live in wetland regions. This focus on how nature can benefit people is spurring the next stage of his research:

We focus on on modeling and evaluating the wetlands’ ecosystem and its contribution to people, as well as carbon sinks and the premier production of the wetlands plants. In the future, our group will extend our study to wetlands’ contribution to people and how to maximize and secure their contributions.

One way to do that may be by building awareness of biodiversity’s importance. “Biodiversity is the basis for the development, even in prehistoric periods,” he says. “Maybe there is a need for some balance here. I just read a book some days ago and it mentioned that when biodiversity is degraded, people pay attention to it, and its value is raised.  So we need to get to a point of balance between development and biodiversity protection or conservation. We should get some balance between these two sectors.”

Prof Chen’s inspiration

Prof Chen’s commitment to the wetlands and his choice of career is perhaps not surprising given his lifelong love of the outdoors. “I love nature, and because of my studies, I love plants, especially wetland plants,” he says. “They inspired me to concentrate my studies on wetlands biodiversity.”

At university, Chen majored in environmental engineering, but after four years, he reassessed his interests. “I found that I was not very interested in the engineering aspects, so I changed to wetlands research with the help of my professor,” he says. He started to study the biodiversity of river banks and was hooked: “I found it very interesting.”

His home in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, is most famous for its giant panda population, but it is also home to several major wetlands. When he was a young boy growing up in the countyside, these were his playground:

Rice production in Sichuan covers very large areas, and around my birthplace, there are many rivers and wetlands. Wetlands include brooks and rivers, and paddy fields. When I was a boy, I played around beside the rivers fishing for shrimp.

These days, he spends most of his time in the lab with his team of about 30, including staff and PhD students. Working on data can be exciting, he says, but his work is seasonal and he also has plenty of opportunities to work in the open, which is a big plus for him. “My research is mainly in the Tibetan Plateau,” he says. “We usually work there in the growing season from about May to September, most of the time outside in the wetlands.”

Importance of international collaboration

The ASPIRE prize recognizes research that encourages collaboration across borders, and this kind of international collaboration has been and remains an integral part of Prof Chen’s work because the biodiversity of wetlands varies greatly across different climates and environments. “Biodiversity is climatic – it’s very correlated with climate and geology,” explains Chen. “Wetlands diversity depends on other ecosystems around them, so the biodiversity of wetlands is quite different between and across different locations.”

That makes working with colleagues from other parts of the world crucial, as it allows him and his team to study very different samples. “I work closely with Quebec University at Montreal, mostly on ecological modeling of wetlands,” he says. “I get many benefits from this collaboration because they have different backgrounds and different methods. We also get some soil samples for other countries, such as Poland, Germany, Canada and the US. We do some very comprehensive incubation of samples from countries around the world. It’s very important for to work with colleagues from other parts of the world.”

Supporting the SDGs: “We have to try harder.”

The UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs)opens in new tab/window play an important role in building the case for sustainability and protecting biodiversity, as has been demonstrated in his own country: “The SDG are very important for the whole world,” he says. “As of 2020, the goals have not been achieved, but we have to try harder. I have recently written about the Chinese government’s efforts to meet the SDGs. By the end of 2019, China had 64 wetlands of international importance, and about half of the wetlands in China are under effective protection, so I think the SDG are very important for wetlands conservation and biodiversity protection.”

He believes more can be done to align the work of those working on different aspects of biodiversity. “Some say there are two kinds of people: ecosystem people and biosphere people,” says Prof Chen, with ecosystem people focusing on food production in underdeveloped countries, and biosphere people focusing on cities:

I would like to see these two kinds of people cooperate — and for both national and social sectors to work together to make a better world in the future

Three tips for early-career researchers

For early career researchers, Prof Chen has three pieces of advice:

  1. Keep your eyes open wide and not just on one specialty. Look at other topics that may be related or distant to your initial choice.

  2. Target difficult problems. Easy problems mean they are not important. The greater the difficulty, the more important they are.

  3. Devote yourself to what you choose, like peasants devote themselves to their farmland. You will be rewarded by a sense of accomplishment.