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.