Wetlands: Classification

Authored by: Arnold G. van der Valk

Encyclopedia of Natural Resources

Print publication date:  July  2014
Online publication date:  June  2014

Print ISBN: 9781439852583
eBook ISBN: 9781351043847
Adobe ISBN:


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Today it is widely accepted that wetlands have three main characteristics: (1) regular inundation or saturated soils, (2) hydric plant species, and (3) hydric soils. Wetland classification systems began in the United States in the 1890s in order to inventory wetlands that could be reclaimed (i.e., drained). Later, American classification systems were developed to inventory wetlands as waterfowl habitat and subsequently for multiple legal, conservation, and scientific purposes. Although the main goal of classification systems originally was to provide a framework for inventories, the most recent classification systems, the hydrogeomorphic systems, are primarily intended to identify wetlands with similar functions and to provide a framework for quantifying their functions. Many countries, besides the United States, have developed wetland classification systems that are tailored to local conditions, including Canada, Australia, and South Africa. Initially, wetland classifications were horizontal in structure with no subdivisions of the various types of wetlands recognized. Later, they became hierarchical in structure with multiple subdivisions. The Ramsar Convention Bureau, Switzerland, has developed a classification system that is intended to be worldwide in scope. This bureau, however, uses a less formal definition of what is a wetland, “areas of marsh, fen, peatland, or water,” than that used in most national systems. Nevertheless, it provides a useful framework for the rapid assessment of wetland types. New classification systems currently being developed, like the new South African system, suggest that more sophisticated wetland classification systems can be developed that could become the basis of a new international wetland classification system. Before a new international system can be developed, a universally accepted definition of what constitutes a wetland is needed.

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