The role of Peatlands in the carbon cycle

Peatlands greatly aid control of the carbon content. It is important to know that despite covering a relatively small 3 percent of the earth’s total land surface, bogs hold a third of the total atmospheric carbon content. These regions are characterized by extensive plant cover, with the peat itself being an accumulated layer of organic material that has not undergone complete decomposition. This plant matter will have remained in the same location, in an environment that is oxygen deficient. This deficiency is as a result of the presence of a stable water level. The water can be either just below or just above the surface. Limited aerobic decomposition, therefore, is the key to the formation of peatlands.

Photosynthesis, emissions after the damage of the bogs, and the absorbed carbon in partially decomposed plant matter form are the primary processes that form the carbon cycle in peatlands. To correctly understand the aspects of each method, it is essential to look at the sub-processes that take place in these zones. Photosynthesis is a crucial part of the survival of plant life. It aids in the formation of food for the plant and is a vital part of the carbon cycle.

Carbon is the essential raw material that enables photosynthesis. This absorption of carbon as carbon dioxide is the critical process in the initial stages of photosynthesis. It is in the absorption of this compound that plants can generate organic compounds. During photosynthesis, a molecule of water is used up for every molecule of carbon dioxide absorbed.

The chemical equation of photosynthesis looks like this;

6C02 + 6H2O              In the presence of sunlight                        C6H12O6 + 6O2

 

Simplified, it means that six molecules of carbon dioxide react with six molecules of water – in the presence of sunlight – to produce a molecule of glucose and six molecules of oxygen. The glucose in this equation represents the energy that the plant needs to develop, generally referred to as ‘food’ in lay terms. The chief role of sunlight in the process is to provide the energy that facilitates the reaction. Oxygen is a crucial byproduct of this process.

A closer examination of the process makes it evident that the healthier the peatland, the more significant the number of plants, and the higher its capacity to absorb carbon.

The principal way in which peatlands absorb carbon is the presence of a low oxygen level. Low levels of oxygen, in turn, hamper the decomposition process. The stagnation of this process, therefore, means that the carbon content in the dead plant fails to be oxidized. This halting of the process means that there is no conversion to carbon dioxide that eventually ends up in the atmosphere. Human activity has overseen the draining of an estimated 65 million hectares of peat bogs. In the drying process after the peatland drainage, microbes subsequently find the perfect combination of carbon (food) and oxygen. This environment is ideal for the formational of additional CO2. The extra carbon dioxide forms other emissions into the atmosphere. The decay or draining of peatlands alone is responsible for the release of approximately three billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually.

Another activity that has proven harmful is burning of peat bogs. This process directly releases carbon back into the atmosphere as well as reducing the capacity of the peatland to absorb and keep carbon levels in check. Peatlands hold an estimated 500 billion metric tons of carbon, exceeding the ability of all the world’s forests combined. This total amounts to about 1,450 metric tons contained in each hectare of peatland. They can hold carbon for even thousands of years. To control the carbon content, protection of peat bogs is crucial.

The impact of deforestation on peatlands

Peatlands cover about 3 percent of the earth’s land surface. They play vital roles in the global environment. These roles include acting as a natural ‘carbon sink’, holding a third of the total volume of the world’s carbon dioxide. These wetlands also assist in alleviating the risk of fires. Peatlands also provide a crucial platform for biodiversity. They are also a tourism hub, as they provide habitat for an impressive variety of plants and animals. Bogs also provide vital protection for the global water supply system while providing a source of food and other land-based products. Even from this brief overview, the importance of these resources cannot be overemphasized.

Even with the importance and benefits of peatlands visible, these zones have suffered considerable damage over the years. About 14 percent of the world’s bogs have been destroyed as a direct result of human activity. This significantly affects the effectiveness of these regions as well as directly resulting in increased release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The main types of exercise causing this destruction has been burning and draining of mires. Another related activity has also caused degradation of bogs. This destruction has been responsible for more than a tenth of the total global emissions released from the continued burning of fossil fuels. A majority of these emissions – two thirds – come from Southeast Asia. Indonesia is the country leading to carbon emissions.

The restoration of these lands is necessary. Deforestation has been a strategy adopted to help restore these key zones. The leading causes of deforestation so far have been;

  • Agriculture and livestock ranching. The need for more farming or grazing land has directly resulted in the large-scale felling of trees
  • Construction. With an increase in population, forests have been cut to accommodate these additional numbers
  • Logging. This activity has been done with the aim of providing the raw material for industries
  • Climate change. Changes in climate have seen the capacity of areas to support forest cover reduce.
  • Mining. The need to mine for ore and other precious minerals dictates that clearance of the mining area is necessary, leading to less forest cover.

Despite the well-known effects of deforestation in other regions, the felling of trees in wetlands has been verified as a way of actually making them wetter. The reduction of forest cover in peatlands is aimed at boosting the region’s capability as a wildlife habitat as well as the protection of soil carbon stocks.

The effect of deforestation is two-tiered. There is the impact of felling trees has a different effect depending on the location, whether on or off peatlands. Off wetland setups, deforestation will mostly hurt bogs. This effect is brought about by the way lessened forest cover facilitates global warming. There has been a consistent rise in global temperatures. The increased temperatures have resulted in increased evaporation levels. When wetlands are subjected to these temperatures, considerable damage is suffered, and the overall benefit to the environment that these bogs offer is significantly reduced. It is, therefore, crucial to note that forest cover in areas outside peatlands needs maintenance as tree felling in these regions has a direct adverse effect on mires.

Forests have been confirmed to keep carbon emissions in check. Analysis from The Nature Conservancy among others estimates that 7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions can annually be removed, and this can only be done through forest restoration, curbing improper forestry practices and keeping logging activity. The conservation of forests is essential so that this excess presence of carbon in the atmosphere remains manageable. Additional carbon in the atmosphere means that there will subsequently be an extra load on peatlands in the containment of this carbon dioxide. In essence, the more forest cover we have outside wetlands, the less carbon we have in the atmosphere.

Deforestation has proven to be a critical cause of rainfall in many regions. Lack of a forest cover. Logging and other tree-felling activities in tropical rainforests, for instance, has been established to be a direct cause of reduced precipitation in these zones. A drop in rainfall levels will directly affect rain-fed peatlands negatively. With less water, these areas will shrink, causing a smaller habitat for plant and animal life in the bogs. This reduced size also means that the capacity of the affected peatlands to absorb carbon will significantly drop. A lesser extent also says that animals in these regions will host increased numbers of wildlife or strain for space and resources over time.

Lesser forest cover will also directly affect the presence as well as the size of rein-fed peatlands. This dependency on rainfall makes bogs reliant on the amount of precipitation, even though they are an essential element in the global water supply system. The frequency of occurrence and the size of peatlands is directly proportional to the capacity of these wetlands to check carbon levels in the atmosphere. As such, all mechanisms that directly affect the amount of annual rainfall are essential.

Forest cover has a relatively different effect on the peatlands themselves. The presence of trees in forested mires ensures that there is cover helps in maintaining the moisture content and controls the levels of humidity in such wetlands. The removal of this canopy exposes the floor to the elements, resulting in increased evaporation due to direct exposure to the sun and wind. Re-vegetation of bogs is guaranteed to augment the region’s capacity to support plant and animal life. In this aspect, forested mires need a certain amount of tree cover to maximize their effect on the environment.

In select peatlands, deforestation is a means of restoration. This approach has been adopted because research has shown that the catchment capacity of the region increases, making the wetlands even wetter. This improved catchment is because trees consume considerable amounts of water through their roots. The absorbed water then subsequently ends up in the atmosphere through the leaves. In this unorthodox approach, reduction of tree cover in wetlands could be an ingenious strategy of restoring peatlands.

It is clear that the forest cover in areas outside peatlands offer a crucial support system for the existence of these zones, and should be protected and maintained at all costs. The controlled reduction of tree cover in certain bogs could also prove beneficial to these wetlands.

The Risks of Peat Fires And How To Control Them

Peat fires are raging, uncontrolled and rapidly spreading huge flames intensified by firebrands and wind action that completely eliminates forests and vegetation within minutes. They are also known as woodland fires, bush fires, vegetation fires or grass fire.

They are extreme and wildly burn at temperatures above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the surface of Venus. The flames are so violent going beyond 50 meters high, spreads widely and fast twice how the average human being can run. Hence, it is significantly difficult to control and suppress them. They have been substantiated in such countries as Indonesia, South East Asia, Germany, China, Greece, Portugal, Russia, Malaysia etc.

The U.S Fire services estimate that over 700 peat fires befall annually burning over 6 million acres of land and a massive destruction of over 26, 000 structures. However, the local and central organization have joined their forces in an attempt to control thousands of peat fires. Moreover, The U.S government spend billions of dollars to eradicate these fire every years.

 What are The Causes of peat fires?

Human Factors

Over 90 percent of peat fires are caused by human acts of negligence. The following are the most common human factors known to cause peat fires:

  • Smoking: Improper extinguishing of cigarettes butts before discarding them and carelessly throwing them into dry leaves and other combustible may lead to widespread peat fires disaster.
  • Unattended campfires: Camping is a thrilling ordeal. During such outdoor activities, people may leave combusting materials or lit fires unattended which can ignite peat fires. It’s prudent to extinguish a lit fire before leaving the campsites to avoid peat fire menace.
  • Engine sparks or equipment failure: Engine sparks may give rise to rapid fires if it’s operating in the forest or in the field.
  • Burning Debris: When trash and other waste materials are burned, the reduced accumulation of garbage. Consequently, debris that burns slowly is left. This debris becomes a potential cause of massive peat fires.
  • Agricultural activities: People may deliberately clear and burn forests to pave way for the development of agriculture activities thereby causing peat fires.
  • Petrol: Petroleum products used in logging tools may leak on the dry vegetation and cause forest fires.
  • Arson: This is deliberate and malicious setting fire on land or forest. Arson is estimated to cause about 30% of all peat fires.

Natural Factors

The following are the leading natural causes for peat fires:

  • Lightning: This is the major and most destructive cause of peat fires. When a diverse electric voltage of lightning strokes occur, it leads to direct ignition of the vegetation causing incredibly massive fires. Such fires are more recurrent during the dry season and are extremely difficult to suppress because of the rugged
  • Volcanic Activities: Lava flow and volcanic eruptions can cause extensive peat fires difficult to extinguish due to associated risks and constant lava flow.

Impacts of Peat Fires.

  • High smoke levels may distract normal activities of people living near these forests.
  • Increased ash and smoke can trigger serious health implications to infants and the elderly.
  • The gas produced by the compounds when the fires occur is irritating and odorous.
  • Massive amounts of smoke emitted are a leading cause of air pollution.
  • Leads to complete destruction of soils by burning its natural ingredients.
  • Leads to loss of human life especially those involved in firefighting.
  • Massive loss of jobs and income for those whose animals and crops were affected by the fire
  • Peat fires interfere with the crucial habitat of  people and endangered species e.g. Orangutans
  • It’s the leading cause of global warming due to the massive amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

How to Control Peat Fires

Peat fires being the largest fires on earth have become extremely hard to eliminate. Eradicating them calls for extensive measures to be taken. Such techniques include:

  • Extensive awareness campaigns

It is essential for the public to increase their understanding of various causes of peat fires and effective reaction in the event of a fire break out. Fire safety regulations codes should be availed and publicized.

  • Enforcing fines and penalties

Imposing of fines and penalties hinders the willingness of visitors who visit the parks and intend to engage in a hazardous behavior. This includes anyone who violates any regulation or bans through constant reminders.

  • Recreation and Parks Integration

Informative pamphlets can be designed and distributed in park workshops and other recreation facilities can help disseminate information touching on peat fire control.

  • Always heed to the weather forecast

The weather is the major cause of peat fires, avoid burning any combustible substances during treacherous conditions or when it’s windy.

  • Be keen to follow bylaws and local regulations

Follow the rules and regulations regarding what time of the day or year you should burn various substances. Ensure that you only burn the substances that are permitted to be burnt.

  • Use of various channels such as Social media networks, newsletters, mailing lists. Many organizations can communicate effectively to their communities through these channels. This will help to spread information and make a huge impact in avoiding peat fires.
  • Interaction with other parks, forestry, and various recreation organizations. Peat fires are a global menace thus this interaction can help unveil what has worked in some communities and what has not worked for them.
  • Governing bodies can work together with regional experts and develop strategies to aid each locality on fire control and suppression techniques.
  • In other instances, use of firefighters can be used to burn some forest vegetation in order to control future incidences of peat fire occurrence through the creation of buffer zones.

Peat fires are notorious occurrences but in the long run, they can be controlled. Ensure you follow the rules and regulations of the area you are in. They are extremely disastrous and hazardous to our lands and entire creatures. Following these rules can save lives, homes and the natural habitat of the creatures.

Humans are the leading cause of peat fires and can be the ideal solution too.

Impact of future climate change on peatlands

Peatlands play a crucial role in the environmental balance. With a cover of 3 percent of the earth’s surface, these mini ecosystems are vital for climatic and ecological balance in the world today. Due to the nature of dependency between climate and these regions, change in one is likely to have adverse changes reflecting on the other. Carbon balance in the atmosphere, as well as rainfall patterns, indicate the significant characteristics of the environment and climate that will be most affected by a chain of events originating from a future climate change. Since they act as the most significant carbon stores, bogs require protection and conservation with a view of maintaining this delicate environmental balance.

Not all relevant bodies, communities and individuals understand the importance of these zones has led to severe overexploitation, suffering considerable damage as a result of activities like drainage, mining for fuel, burning and agricultural conversion. Human activity has overseen the destruction of 15 percent of all bogs in the world. This activity has directly resulted in the release of vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It is vital to understand the role of peatlands in the global fight to combat climate change, and with this knowledge, the adoption of a keener approach is necessary.

It is a chain of events, beginning with the destruction or draining of bogs, which lead to larger volumes of carbon emissions and erratic weather patterns, which in return lead to less and less surface cover by peatlands, and the cycle begins all over again. The progression of this cycle over time directly results into less and less areas that can qualify as peatlands, with a loss of balance in the climate.

Peatlands provide an impressive range of ecosystem services such as;

  1. Peatlands are a vital mechanism in the prevention of seawater intrusion, acting as a vital proactive mechanism that prevents flooding.
  2. Bogs are a source of food
  • They are a vital part of local economies in surrounding areas
  1. They help preserve essential records such as pollen and human artifacts. Human bodies have also been excellently preserved in bogs, giving modern technology the rare opportunity to obtain insight on past human lifestyles (bog bodies)
  2. They also help in filtering drinking water, dissolved compounds, however, result in polluted water. Bogs hold an impressive 10 percent of the global freshwater resources.
  3. These mires assist in the conservation of certain wildlife species. For instance, the Bornean Orangutan population has dropped by a worrying 60 percent over six decades, and this has been verified to have been as a result of the loss of these important swamp habitats. This significant loss has led to the classification of the species as critically endangered.
  • Mires are important carbon store, holding a third of the world’s soil carbon. It is on drainage or destruction that this carbon is released into the atmosphere, bringing about an unsuitable balance.

Predicted temperature changes in coming years over select regions are inevitably going to affect mires. This forecast will directly result in the melting of peat that is perennially frozen. This thawing will, in turn, result in waterlogged conditions. Areas with non-permafrost peatlands will experience more frequent wildfires as drying of the regions takes full effect. The frequency of occurrence of fire will tend to remain higher, ranging from 400 to 1700 years in areas that higher moisture content, as compared to 50 to 100 years in relatively drier regions.

A closer look at the effect of climate change on peatlands reveals the following;

  1. Projected increases in air temperatures will, in turn, reflect an increase in ground temperatures(the temperature increases are so acute that they can even be measured with a home weather station). This change will cause a rise in evapotranspiration which results in the drying of bogs and the subsequent destabilization of peatland ecosystems.
  2. Widespread thawing due to slight increases in temperature will meet perennially frozen peatlands, and result in waterlogging. These frozen mires tend to be very sensitive to temperature variations, with their healthy existence relying on zero or subzero temperatures.
  • Continually erratic patterns are more and more likely to become the norm. This projection means that high latitudes will receive increased rainfall while mid-latitudes are getting reduced precipitation. This change in rainfall patterns increases the risk of drought in all areas, with erratic agricultural productivity.
  1. The forecast increase in temperatures will also likely increase the primary productivity of peatlands due to the lengthening of growing seasons. This expected rise will be accompanied by an increase in the peat decay rates, which will, in turn, lead to the release of larger volumes of methane and carbon dioxide.
  2. An increase in rainfall will result in the erosion of peatlands. This increase will consequently amplify by activities like overgrazing and drainage by human activity in a bid to find balance in the environment.
  3. Chances of greater droughts will potentially increase the chances of fire, with drier regions proving to be more susceptible to such. It remains the fact that the primary cause of the fire is human activity. It is in drier settings that the effects of such fires are worst felt due to ease of which they spread.
  • There is also a real possibility of tree lines shifting towards the poles due to an increase in summer temperatures. Hydrological changes are also likely to result in increased forest cover on open peatlands.

Sustainable Development Goals have been put in place to protect peatlands and have them at optimum productivity. These include;

  1. Assessment of the distribution of state peatlands
  2. The measurement and reporting of peatland emissions
  • Protection and restoration of peatlands with an excellent financial support framework
  1. Increased engagement of local communities in conservation activities
  2. Sharing of the available knowledge, experience, and expertise regarding the conservation, restoration, and improvement of peatlands
  3. The inclusion of bogs along with forests the relevant agreements that address climate change, biodiversity, and geodiversity.
  • A stay on peat exploitation just until proper legislation is enacted to protect mires as well as managing such activity.

Peatlands help establish an essential balance in the global environment, and projected climate change would affect said balance with the inevitable effects such changes will have on existing mires. It is therefore imperative that proper care is taken to maintain and protect these critical regions.

Peatlands in the global ecosystem

As the name suggests, peatlands are vast tracts of land covered in peat. By definition, peat is the accumulation of organic material (for instance plants and mosses) that has remained in its location since formation, without movement. With a stable water level near the surface (could be just below or just above), decomposition of the dead plants or organic matter is hampered by the lack of oxygen (limited aerobic decomposition).

This process results in a layer of organic material being deposited or accumulating over time. The peatland, therefore, is an area of land covered by a naturally accrued layer of peat. Different definitions require the sheet to measure at least a foot thick for the soil to qualify for classification as peat.

Peatlands cover an estimated 3 percent of the earth’s surface. This regularity in occurrence means that you will find them in at least 175 countries worldwide. They occupy a surface area of about four million square kilometers. You will find the largest of these in areas around northern Europe, Southeast Asia, and North America. The Southeast Asia peatlands cover some relatively extensive regions, with Indonesia having more tropical peatland as well as mangrove forests than any other individual country in the world.

There are six major types of peat. Each of these is found in different environments regarding annexation to the poles as well as the tropics, with all the classified types exhibiting unique characteristics.

Here are the six types of peatlands;

Blanket mires

These are generally one to three meters deep and are rain-fed. These types are common in the UK and Ireland, with the UK alone having 13 percent of the global mire area. Their development is encouraged by cool climates and seasonal temperatures that have slight fluctuations regarding temperature. The rainfall in these areas will characteristically exceed one meter over 160 rain days annually.

Raised mires

Raised mires are also rain-dependent. They are potentially deep peatlands. These bogs are common in Northern Europe and North America. These geographical features are also found in areas of the former USSR as well as in some areas of the southern hemisphere. They occur in more or less level floodplains that have mature river systems.

String mires

These are characteristically flat or concave peatlands easily identifiable by their standout string-like patterns of hummocks. They are very common in upland wetlands. They have some slightly elevated ridges with are usually at right angles with the direction of water flow. They occur in areas with slight slopes and are common in places with periglacial climates. This type of peatlands is located in northern Scandinavia, areas of the former USSR as well as in North America.

Tundra mires

A shallow layer of peat characterizes these bogs, usually measuring approximately about half a meter deep (50cm). They are most common in permafrost areas such as Alaska and Canada, with others located in regions of the former USSR. They cover vast areas, with areas of between 110,000 and 160,000 square kilometers.

Palsa mires

These are peatlands with a permanently frozen core, easily identifiable due to their unique high mounds. These mounds typically measure anywhere between 0.5 to 8 meters high. The diameter of these mounds can measure up to 50 meters. Wet depressions cover the area between the hills. These are features found in subarctic as well as northern boreal regions. Palsa mires are common in Canada, parts of Scandinavia and a few areas of the former USSR.

Peat swamps

These are forested peatlands(read more about deforestation and peatlands), fed by both rain and groundwater. Peat swamps are usually common in high rainfall areas. They cover larger areas compared to tundra mires, with coverage of up to 350,000 square kilometers. These swamps are common in Southeast Asia, the Amazon, and central Africa. Peat swamps can also be found in the Everglades in Florida (USA).

Peatlands provide a support system for the climate systems and help in maintaining the global water supply. These regions also act as havens for a variety of wildlife, serving not only as a home but as areas of conservation for existing animal species.

Areas classified and recognized as peatlands cover a significantly small percentage of overall surface area at 3 percent. Despite covering what relatively a tiny region of the larger land mass is, they hold about a third of the global carbon store (30%). This figure shows that these regions have a significant role in the environment. However, damaged peatlands lose the capacity to remove carbon dioxide and in turn begin to emit it into the atmosphere. This damage in return dramatically accelerates climate change which in turn has adverse effects on human, animal and plant life. Due to the critical role that they play, restoration projects for damaged peatlands are underway around the world. Europe has been at the center of this undertaking, with the initiated projects targeting bogs in the region, and the challenge to spread the relevant know-how to other areas around the globe.

There is also the proactive approach that challenges host countries where such regions are found to protect existing peatlands actively. This initiative is carried out with the aim of ensuring that resident wildlife is conserved. The water conservation systems are also protected to ensure that little or no damage comes to them. Sensitive elements in this setting such as the wildlife will prove particularly challenging to restore if damage to these environments causes the death or extinction of species that use the peatland as a primary habitat.

The core benefits of peatlands are;

  • They provide land-based products and food
  • They assist in managing the risk of fires
  • They avail biodiversity protection
  • They are a tourism hub, providing recreation and a tool for cultural heritage
  • They protect the global water supply system and regulate flow to reduce the risk of flooding
  • Most importantly, they help maintain the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The importance and value of peatlands in the world today can’t be overemphasized, and it is therefore of crucial importance that they are protected, with the ones that have suffered damage restored. Peatlands are of essential importance, and they need to be conserved.