Although the word “swamp” might sound ominous because of some of the creatures that live there, swamps are really just forested wetlands. That means they’re like lakes only much shallower. The water in swamps is usually shallow enough to allow plants and trees to flourish.
Swamps can often be found along large rivers or along the shores of large lakes. In fact, some of the world’s largest swamps can be found along the world’s largest rivers, including the Amazon, the Mississippi and the Congo.
Swamps can contain fresh water, seawater or a mixture of both. Some swamps are permanent, while others come and go with fluctuations in the local water level. Whatever type of water is present, it usually moves very slowly through a swamp, due to the presence of large amounts of plants and trees.
Although wetlands are very valuable because of the many types of plants and animals they support, swamps have often been drained throughout history to convert the land for use as farms. Some swamps were drained to reduce diseases caused by swamp insects, such as mosquitoes. Still other swamps were drained to allow logging of the trees in the area.
Drainage ditches, canals and levees would be built to drain the water. This process resulted in the loss of habitat for many plants and animals. In some areas of the world, such as Europe and New Zealand, drainage has been so widespread that 50-90% of wetlands have vanished.
Today, many groups are actively trying to restore wetlands. Scientists now understand how valuable swamps can be. In addition to a habitat for plants and animals, swamps help with flood control and water purification. Depending upon how the wetlands were drained, restoring them can be as simple as plugging drainage ditches or removing levees.
The largest swamp in the United States — Atchafalaya Swamp — sits along the end of the Mississippi River in southern Louisiana. The U.S. has several other famous swamps, including the Everglades in Florida and the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia.
Even though scientists now recognize the value of swamps, these areas of land still tend to have lower property values than other types of land, such as woodlands and fields. Many people who live near swamps, though, do manage to make use of them by fishing and hunting animals that call the swamp home.