Peat in the Heat: European wetlands during Climate Change

Since the last COP 26 in Glasgow global leaders and the public have finally been paying more attention to the crucial role wetlands – and peatlands in particular – play in our fight against climate change.

What are peatlands?

Peatlands are a type of wetland found in the northern hemisphere, especially Canada, Scandinavia and Russia. They form over thousands of years when branches, leaves and other organic materials get sealed in wet conditions and compress over time. Because peatlands are low in nutrients and oxygen, decomposition is very slow, which is the basis for the peat-forming process. The top is usually covered in a soft thick layer of moss, particularly sphagnum species.

The seemingly “empty” expanses were previously seen as “wastelands” and never considered on the same level as rich green forests or blooming meadows. This is very undeserved, as peatlands are rich ecosystems in themselves, supporting a diverse range of plants, insects and birds.

How peatlands store carbon – and what this means for us

The phrases commonly used in relation to peatland’s role regarding climate change are “carbon storage” and “carbon sequestration” – but what do they actually mean?

“Carbon storage” is really self-explanatory – it refers to the fact that peatlands store carbon within the underground peat-layer. This happens during the slow decomposition process of organic materials and is hugely important in keeping carbon trapped in the ground and stopping it from being released in the atmosphere.

“Carbon sequestration” is the process of capturing and storing carbon over the long term. So, the two terms have slightly different meanings, although they are both related to the important function of peatlands in carbon regulation. These processes might seem complicated, but there are some great educational videos available if you are interested in learning more about this.

Globally, peatlands store 30% of all carbon, with an average of 1.13kg carbon per square meter of peat annually. This is double the amount stored in forests, the “green lungs” of the planet.

Apart from this vital role in climate regulations, peatlands also hold moisture in an area, thereby regulating water flow and acting as natural fire brakes. In many areas they are also important for indigenous people, as sources for food, fuel or medicinal plants.

The effects of climate change and peat harvest

Unfortunately, the last hundred years have seen some devastating loss and draining of peatland areas through climate change and direct human interference.

As wetlands, climate change and the associated rise in temperature and dry periods threaten peatlands in particular. A loss of 50cm in the water table already releases 5-15 tonnes of CO2 per hectare of peat – imagine how much carbon this means Russia, where wetlands cover approximately 1.8 million km2.

In addition to this, people drain peatlands and peat and moss is removed for fuel, horticultural uses or to utilize the area for other industries. This not only destroys the ecosystem and prevents any future carbon sequestration, but it also frees up the carbon already stored in the peat. Draining of a peatland increases oxygen levels, which leads to faster decomposition, in turn causing peat-formation to stop.

The future of peatlands – and humans / Possible future scenarios 

So, how can we ensure that peatlands continue to perform their vital rule in carbon storage in the age of climate change and increased human impacts on all ecosystems?

The first step is to immediately protect all peatlands still in a healthy state, to prevent any further loss of stored carbon into the atmosphere and ensure their future ability to sequester carbon. This will be most important, as it is questionable how fast, and to what extent restoring destroyed peatlands is possible. The formation of peat takes hundreds, if not thousands of years and cannot be sped up, so any restoration efforts will be slow, with positive impacts far in the future.

Current efforts are to re-wet peatlands wherever possible and to breed and plant sphagnum mosses for healthy peatland ecosystems.

However, the primary objective should always be to stop the global degradation of peatlands as soon as possible in a preventative, rather than a reactionary approach to the problem. It will take us hundreds of years to get a destroyed peatland back to the state it was before – so let’s prevent this from happening in the first place.

For more information on peatlands, their current state and the research and protection efforts for peatlands, visit the website from the International Peatland Society here.

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