The Peatland Ecosystem: The Planet's Most Efficient Natural Carbon Sink

Peat soil is pictured here.
Peat soil is pictured here.

What Is Peat?

Peat occurs in wetlands such as bogs, mires, moors, and peatlands. This substance is comprised of partially decaying organic matter, which primarily consists of wetland plants like moss, shrubs, and sedges. It is common in wetlands because the stagnant waters decrease the level of oxygen, resulting in anaerobic or highly acidic conditions. In these conditions, vegetation cannot completely break down, resulting in accumulating peat. As the volume of peat increases over thousands of years, it holds greater amounts of water, causing the wetland where it is located to grow in area. Additionally, peatlands offer researchers a look at past plant life and climate, which provides information about the human land use and global climate change.

Peat: The Most Efficient Carbon Sink In The World

Peatland ecosystems are the most efficient carbon sinks in the world, which means the area stores carbon and carbon-containing substances for long periods of time. Peatlands and their surrounding plant life work to trap the CO2 released by the decomposing peat. This ecosystem covers approximately 3% of the world’s land area, yet holds an estimated 30% of the world’s carbon content.

Where Are Peatlands Located?

Peatlands can be found all over the globe and have been recorded in at least 175 countries. Of the 1.5 million square miles of global peatland, approximately 199,000 square miles are located in Europe. Tropical peatlands, those located in Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Central America, East Asia, and Southeast Asia, make up between 10 and 12% of all peat-containing wetlands. The largest peatland in the world can be found in Siberian Russia.

Wildlife Found In Peatland Ecosystems

The unique characteristics of peatland ecosystems make them the perfect environmental habitat for a number of plant and animal species, many of them considered vulnerable or endangered. These wetlands provide the perfect resting grounds for migrating birds and often serve as breeding grounds for other bird species. For example, both the whooping crane and the Siberian crane rely on peatland ecosystems during their migratory paths. One of the most common plants found in these ecosystems is the Sphagnum moss. Other unique plants found here include wild orchids and a number of carnivorous plant species.

The Link Between Peatland Ecosystem Health and Global Climate Change

Over the last few centuries, the health of peatland ecosystems around the world has been threatened by human activity. One of the major activities that threaten peatland health is drainage construction. The waters of these areas are drained in order to make room for urbanization, agriculture, and human settlements. This action both destroys plant and animal habitats and also contributes to global climate change.

Currently, an estimated 14 to 20% of the world’s peatlands are used for agricultural purposes and have been degraded by drainage to regulate the soil conditions needed for crops. The timber industry is also a significant threat to peatlands, particularly in Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia. In these countries, approximately 24.71 million acres of peatland has been drained to make way for timber logging activity.

When the water is drained away from a peatland ecosystem, the organic matter beneath is open in the air, causing its complete decomposition. This decomposition produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, which is then put into the air. Although peatland drainage has slowed down across Europe, it is rapidly increasing throughout China, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Another big threat to peatland ecosystem health is peat fires. Because the environment's high amount of carbon, peat fires can be very long lasting. These fires mainly occur underground, which means they can go on smoldering without being noticed. While natural wildfires are important to maintaining plant life balance here, manmade fires cause significant damage. These fires threaten the conservation status of several plant species, including Dionaea, Utricularia, Sarracenia, toothache grass, orchids, and Sandhills lily. Additionally, peatland fires release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the surrounding air. In Indonesia, for example, recent fires have burned through more than 50 million tons of carbon. Burning peatlands is so commonplace in Southeast Asia that researchers estimate the region could destroy its final peatland ecosystem by as soon as 2040.

Increasing global temperatures due to global climate change is another factor that results in peatland ecosystem destruction. For example, the peatland in western Siberia (the largest in the world) is currently experiencing thawing at faster rates than previously recorded. Researchers have discovered that an area of this peatland (equivalent to the size of Germany and France) has begun melting for the first time in approximately 11,000 years. It is estimated that as the permafrost here thaws, this peatland will release billions of tons of methane, which is considered a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Additionally, melted permafrost means the ground will warm up more quickly than before. Western Siberia has already experienced temperature increases of 37.4° Fahrenheit over the last 40 years, the fastest temperature change recorded anywhere in the world.

Peatland Ecosystem Conservation Efforts

Because of the strong link between peatland ecosystem degradation and global climate change, many organizations are dedicated to conserving the peatlands found around the world. One of the biggest projects promoted by the International Peatland Society, for example, is peatland restoration. Restoring peatlands involves returning it to its former state and pumping water back into the area. This restored water level will not only attract native plants and animals back to the ecosystem but will also create the anaerobic conditions necessary to create more peat to trap more carbon, thereby reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

Additionally, efforts have been undertaken by the United Nations Development Programme, which initiated the Wetlands Ecosystem and Tropical Peat Swamp Forest Rehabilitation Project in 2002. It worked to connect various nonprofit organizations and create a network of cooperation in peatland restoration efforts. These nonprofits also work toward educating local communities and governments about the environmental importance of peatland ecosystems, sharing best practices, promoting agreement on scientific evidence, and collaborating with these stakeholders to create effective policies and ecosystem management plans. International climate change and biodiversity commissions have also begun to recognize peatland ecosystems as important players in minimizing the effects of global climate change.


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