Peatlands are not easy to love. They don't create stunning vistas like mountains or oceans, and they aren't home to magnificent wild animals like the plains and rainforests. But just as you can't call yourself an animal lover if the only creatures you love are cute and cuddly, you can't say you're an environmentalist if you're interested only in preserving majestic scenery.
Peat bogs are "wetlands where dead plants accumulate to make thick waterlogged layers," according to the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. The layers are so thick that oxygen doesn't really penetrate them, and the plant and moss remains build up over time to form peat. It's a slow process, taking 7,000 to 10,000 years to form about 30 feet of peat.
As a result, peat bogs are mucky, damp places. But they're also increasingly a target of conservation efforts. Why? Because peatlands have stored carbon for centuries, and today they hold about 30 percent of the world’s soil carbon, according to the Alaska Peatland Experiment at the University of Guelph in Ontario. They also serve as a source of methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas.
But peatlands also do a world of good for the ecosystem: they lower the risk of fires, protect biodiversity, mitigate climate change and regulate flood risk, according to the University of Leicester in England.
So as talk of climate change has heated up over the years, so has the focus on peat bogs.
An international effort
Peat bogs are found in 175 countries across the globe, with Indonesia being home to more than any other nation, according to the University of Leicester. Peat bogs cover 3 percent of the world's land area, with the largest concentrations found in northern Europe, North America and Southeast Asia.
In early 2017, the world's largest peat bog — about the size of New York state — was found in the Congo. The newly discovered bog highlighted how many nations may not realize they have peat bogs, or may have more than they realize. A study published in May 2017 estimated that peatlands may cover three times as much land than we thought.
At the 2016 United Nations Climate Change conference in Morocco, world leaders announced a Global Peatlands Initiative, which "aims to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and save thousands of lives by protecting peatlands, the world’s largest terrestrial organic soil carbon stock."
If global temperatures continue to rise, it could lead to thawing permafrost, the U.N. says, switching Arctic peatlands from "carbon sinks to sources, resulting in huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions."
Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, says it is "critical we do not reach the tipping point that will see peatlands stop sinking carbon and start spewing it into the atmosphere, destroying any hope we have of controlling climate change.”
Other efforts to shore up peat bogs are happening in the Northern European nation of Estonia, which is planting peat bogs in an effort to reduce carbon emissions, and in the U.S., where a Minnesota-based research center is partnering with the U.S. Department of Energy and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to study how peatlands respond to a warming climate. (You can read more about it in this excellent story from The Guardian.)
Threats to peat bogs
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) says peat bogs are coming under threat from conversion, which is when wetlands are drained to make them more suitable for agriculture production.
In some parts of the world, peat is excavated and used for fuel. However, its combustibility can be dangerous. In 2015, a devastating wildfire in Indonesia burned through drained peat bogs; had they not been converted, the watery area would have slowed or stopped the fire. In addition, the wildfire occurred during a dry spell, so no rain fell to put out the fires.
As a result, the U.N. says, the peat-fueled fire may have indirectly killed up to 100,000 people through "toxic haze," in addition to causing $16.1 billion in economic damage. Also, the fire emitted more carbon dioxide than the entire U.S. Afterward, Indonesia set up a peatland restoration agency to reverse the damage done to wetlands.
A similar situation happened in Russia in 2010, when wildfires burned through drained peat bogs for months.
Both cases show why peat bogs have been elbowing their way into global warming environmental preservation discussions. If we can see beyond their layers of plant decay to the power of what lies beneath, these valuable wetlands will continue to benefit our planet for years to come.