The tragedy of peat
Peatlands in Ķemeri National Park, Jūrmala, Latvia, formed approximately 10,000 years ago in the postglacial period and now a tourist attraction.
In the recent past peatlands have been seen as areas of poor economic potential. Agriculture has been of low intensity in these areas, which was appropriate to indigenous cultures, but of little significance to developed Agri-systems. So, the tendency has been to exploit them for other purposes. They have been drained and used for other purposes resulting in changed land use. They have often been used for the extraction of peat to burn as fuel. Last century, they were also extensively striped to package the peat as quality soil for gardening and soil improvement.
These actions have all proven to be destructive of peatlands. Many European peatlands have been removed or drained through human activities. In fact, worldwide, the destruction of peatlands continues and has been pretty widespread.
However, peatlands are now recognised as more productive than previously thought. Now we know that destroying them has wide consequences. As a result, action has begun to protect these delicate environments in many countries.
What are peatlands?
Peatlands are wetlands or bogs. They occur where the water at the ground surface is acidic and low in nutrients. These habitats are usually found where freshwater has accumulated from precipitation and results in soft, spongy ground made up of decayed plant matter known as peat. Peatlands are normally found in cooler northern climates and are formed in poorly draining lake basins. The low fertility and cool climate result in relatively slow plant growth, but decay is even slower due to low oxygen levels in saturated bog soils.
Peat is a thick layer of partially decomposed organic matter that accumulates in the waterlogged conditions. As the top layer of plants, often mosses, die and allows more growth on top. As they grow they build up layers of organic material that presses on the dead layers below.
As the layers accumulate they become acidic and the lack of oxygen leaves the organic material partially rotted. In the waterlogged, acidic remains the lack of Oxygen creates anaerobic conditions so the rotting slows. The rotted material is largely carbon. The accumulation of peat is an important way to lock up or sequester, CO2 gas. In other words, peatlands act as an important global carbon sync.
Across the globe, peatlands are a small proportion of the overall habitats comprising only 3% of the earth’s land surface.
Despite being of relatively small extent, peatlands have accumulated vast amounts of semi-rotted material. They are one of the world's most important carbon storage systems, sequestering a significant amount of carbon. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), peatlands contain approximately 550 gigatons of carbon, which is more than the amount of carbon stored in all other vegetation types combined.
Peat, after it is rotted into the lower layers, can last for thousands of years. Some peatlands store more than 10 meters of peat. This, in effect, is a store of thousands of years’ worth of carbon. Such storage is a significant factor in the preservation of the global ecology. It is also a natural way to mitigate climate change and help to stabilise and regulate the climate in the long term.
Peatlands are important for a range of organisms.
Peatlands provide unique and valuable habitats for a wide variety of plant and animal species, including many rare and threatened species. Examples of the species that inhabit peatlands in the UK include:
1. Plants: Peatlands support a diverse range of plant species, many of which are adapted to the acidic and nutrient-poor conditions found in peatlands. Common plant species found in peatlands include sphagnum mosses, heathers, bog rosemary, cotton grass, and sundews.
2. Birds: Many bird species depend on peatlands for breeding, feeding, and nesting. Some of the bird species commonly found in peatlands include the Eurasian curlew, black grouse, golden plover, snipe, and merlin.
3. Insects: Peatlands are home to a wide variety of insects, including dragonflies, damselflies, moths, butterflies, and beetles. Many of these insect species are adapted to the unique conditions found in peatlands and play important roles in pollination and nutrient cycling.
4. Amphibians: Several species of amphibians can be found in peatlands, including common frogs, common toads, and several species of newts.
5. Reptiles: Peatlands can provide important habitats for reptiles such as adders and common lizards.
6. Mammals: A variety of mammal species can be found in peatlands, including otters, water voles, and several species of bats.
Social and economic benefits
There are undoubted benefits to local communities and society as a whole from the continued support of these unique wetlands. Here are some examples:
• Water regulation: Peatlands are important regulators of water flows, helping to maintain water quality and reduce the risk of flooding downstream. This can benefit local communities by reducing the likelihood of water-related disasters and providing a reliable source of water for agriculture, industry, and households.
• Flood mitigation: peatlands retain large quantities of water. Where such areas have been drained the drainage remains in place. In times of heavy rainfall the excess drains off quickly and contributes to floods. Prior to the drainage, such floods would have been of less economic impact and would have naturally drained after the rains mitigating the wider effects and slowing the water flows. With artificial drainage, these effects contribute to flash floods which cause great economic damage.
• Carbon storage: Peatlands are one of the world's most important carbon storage systems, sequestering a significant amount of carbon in the form of peat. This can help to mitigate climate change by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
• Agriculture: Peatlands can provide important agricultural resources, such as grazing land and peat soil for horticulture. In some regions, peatlands are also used for the cultivation of crops such as cranberries, blueberries, and potatoes.
• Tourism: Peatlands can provide important tourism opportunities, attracting visitors to enjoy recreational activities such as bird watching, hiking, and nature photography.
• Cultural and historical significance: Peatlands can have significant cultural and historical value, providing a sense of place and identity for local communities.
• In some regions, peatlands have been used for traditional practices such as peat cutting for fuel and have important cultural and historical significance. Unfortunately, in the past, peat extraction for use as soil replacement elsewhere has led to the substantial destruction of peatlands in some developed countries. Now that this destruction has been recognised, a variety of protective laws have been put in place to reduce such damage. But the loss of peats to this form of extraction has been historically significant.
What happens when peatlands are drained?
As peatlands drain or dry, some CO2 is released as the top surface dries. As the water is removed deeper down the soil profile, the rotting process accelerates. In this case, it is starved of Oxygen and so it also produces CH4 (methane). That gas is also a greenhouse gas and is about 86 times more potent than CO2 at retaining atmospheric heat. The net effect is that peatlands have the potential to produce not only CO2, but the more potent CH4 in huge quantities. Huge amounts of carbon can be released as CH4. Studies have shown, peatland degradation contributes up to 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions each year.
Beyond the atmospheric problems caused by peatlands releasing gases, there are other issues. Here are a few examples:
• As peatlands drain the dry out, the dry flammable material increases fire frequency. Fires damage the wetlands themselves, as well as surrounding habitats. It is dangerous for humans as well as for the wildlife that the area maintains.
• The changed environment means many of the local species are forced to leave or simply die out. There is an overall biodiversity loss.
• The quality of the local soil degrades leading to productivity loss and lowered fertility.
• Land is lost and subsides. This leaves the surface below normal levels increasing the flood potential or allowing the ingress of salt waters leading to more productivity loss.
• Contaminants from other water sources nearby are drawn into the wetland ecosystem causing more damage.
Peatlands were once considered poor lands, of little economic value. Science and experience have exposed them as an important natural resource that provides a wide range of ecological, economic, and social benefits, but they are being destroyed at an alarming rate. The disappearance of peatlands is a serious concern, as these ecosystems are important for mitigating climate change and providing important habitats for wildlife. Protecting and restoring peatlands is critical to maintaining their ecological function and preserving the benefits they provide. Most important for our current generation, is to maintain and support peatlands so the greenhouse gas potential is not released.
Despite a rather poor perception of peatlands throughout history, it is important to conserve and restore peatlands while finding sustainable ways to live alongside them.
Aerial image of Carbajal Valley peat bogs, Tierra del Fuego Province, Argentina