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[ Forum] Protecting tidal flats important in fighting climate change, expert says

Local tidal flats expert stresses unique Korean coastal wetlands could be lost

May 16, 2022 - 16:01 By Ko Jun-tae
Chung Seung-soo, the director of the Eco Horizon Institute and a member of Man and the Biosphere Program for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
As global warming intensifies due to climate change, coastal regions will be among the areas worst hit.

The rise in sea level is expected to cause severe disturbance to coastal ecosystems and ignite catastrophic socioeconomic problems with natural disasters.

Countries are working together to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 in a belief that problems hinted to stem from climate change will be prevented with eco-friendly initiatives, but experts say sea level rise is still inevitable even if the goal is reached, which is why countries need to discuss ways to adapt to the expected changes.

Chung Seung-soo, the director of the Eco Horizon Institute and a member of Man and the Biosphere Program for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, says humility and compliance with nature should be prioritized in finding ways to mitigate coastal disasters.

Korea could work toward protecting its tidal flats, unique coastal wetlands that serve as critical habitats by the Yellow Sea for migratory water birds, Chun argues, adding that worrisome changes are already underway but going largely unnoticed.

“The rise in sea levels from climate change causes not only a simple vertical inundation of coastal areas, but also serious erosion of coastal regions from the increase of wave energy approaching the coasts,” Chun said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald and the Herald Business.

“It is easy to witness that changes are occurring fast on the east coast, where tidal flats are scarcely formed or very narrow in their shape, but that is not the case on the west coast.”

Chun said tidal flats are seeing their sediments change and are gradually being eroded, but these changes are difficult to recognize as wide tidal flats are much more common on the west coast. South Korea has already lost close to half of its tidal flats and could have already passed the tipping point, he believes.

“It takes an extremely long time for damaged tidal flats to recover or be stopped from being additionally damaged, and nobody who has led the destruction of tidal flats’ ecosystem can live long enough to take responsibility for their deeds,” the scholar said.

“Damaged forests can be recovered in about 30 years if well maintained, but damaged tidal flats, even with perfect conditions for recovery, need at least 300 years to recover.”

Tidal flats help reduce carbon emissions and sustain wildlife by recycling waste products from nature and providing shelter and habitats for various species, the director said. Their existence is also important in slowing down global warming by acting as a passageway for energy consumed and produced at other points.

The government has already taken missteps in protecting the country’s tidal flats, but Chun said it’s not too late yet, suggesting the government to enact a special law on protecting the habitats and start planning out development projects with consideration of the environment.

“There still are politicians who request for reclamation of tidal flats for selfish reasons for their regions, and there are politicians who map out a whole regional development project on the basis of starting a reclamation project,” Chun said.

“The biggest obstacle in having South Korea’s tidal flats included in the UNESCO World Natural Heritage List was the Saemangeum reclamation project. Now as an advanced nation, the government should officially announce a cessation of any more reclamation projects and stop damaging wetlands.”

While promoting renewable energy is desirable to protect tidal flats from damaged by climate change, Chun said this should be pursued in a way that minimizes the damage to tidal flats.

“Tidal power production could directly damage the ecosystem of tidal flats. So much research has to be done on the subject matter, and wind turbines built along the coast line can damage the ecosystem as well,” Chun said.

“But we should consider building turbines directly in the ocean area for oceanic wind power, and even with that we have to carefully consider where they can be built as they still might be able to inflict damage to tidal flats and nearby wetlands.”