Pay Attention to Peat!

Pay Attention to Peat!

Two articles have been released this week – both focusing on the significance of peat as a factor of climate change.  The interesting thing is both studies look at two fairly different aspects of the matter and in two very different regions of the world.  My first thought – why is ‘peat’ a thing?

For those of us concerned with the levels of CO2 in our atmosphere, we often consider the implications of burning fossil fuels when driving, the factory output of manufacturing, the methane production of cattle farts, and so on.  If we dig a little deeper, we consider the carbon locked up in the ocean – on ocean floors and frozen in our ice caps.  Peat is also a culprit of carbon storage though – and I am only a little embarrassed to admit that I had no idea.  After several blind ‘googles’, I found dozens of articles on the matter – so it is definitely a thing that many people know about, just not me.  If you are also in the dark on the peat topic, let me enlighten you first so that we can discuss the articles from a more intellectual vantage point.

Peatlands (lands made of peat – usually in relationship to bogs) are formed when organic matter dies and stays wet through its decomposition process. The decomposition process becomes halted due to acidic or anaerobic conditions leaving a spongy looking soil material that is great for holding onto water.   When it is dried, it works well as a fuel source.  In Ireland, there is a large company that even extracts peat and forms it into handy bricks to utilize for domestic heating.  This is true, people in Ireland still live in homes where they take these peat bricks and throw them in their peat furnace so that they can cozy up to a peaty warmth.  Naturally, peat also has an affinity for carbon – sucking it out from the cycle and locking it away.

So peatlands exist as giant carbon sinks, locking it up creating a fragile ecosystem always hinging in delicate balance. There is a fancy word for this – sequestration.  Why is this significant?  It has been known for a while that when you drain a peatland for reasons of – well really anything – land use, farming, why else do we mess with land – we are left with fields of dry peaty fuel.  Throw a match on it and this stuff burns for months.  It is crazy – and Indonesia has a huge problem with this as they have been quite often guilty of draining peatlands to create palm plantations (hint hint).

Peatlands cover about 3% of the earth’s surface – but they account for almost A THIRD of all of earth’s organic carbon.  Let that sink in for a second (carbon sink pun untended) – only 3% of the earth’s surface, but contains nearly ONE THIRD the earth’s carbon.  This ecosystem is a very close second to what the oceans do to hold carbon from our atmosphere.  This makes the concentration insane, and the potential for carbon release into the atmosphere – well – significant.

Now we know a little about our friend peat – what have the scientists been revealing as of late?

With epic foreshadowing one paragraph back, let’s start with Indonesia.  In 2015 El Nino happened causing a surge in fires in Indonesia – so much so that a giant evil cloud was released to travel around South East Asia depositing bad air quality to major city centres.  After a few years of careful analysis, this cloud is found to have come predominantly from the burning of peat.  Ancient peat, peat that predated the Industrial Revolution.  So in this regard, the effects of El Nino created fires that released a bunch of carbon into atmosphere that was once held in peat – more so than the forests and garbage that was also burning at the same time.

On to the next study – we know how peatlands can suck carbon out of a cycle now, imagine how much carbon must be stored in a peatland existing in the Amazon basin where carbon runs rampant.  These scientists not only attempted to quantify the amount of carbon stored here, but also sought to find out just how climate change could effect this particular delicate peatland ecosystem.  The answer to the first question is a lot of carbon of course.  The effects (based on model simulations) of climate change, however, are pretty grim.  A little bit of warming can encourage carbon intake over “millennial periods of time”.  The amount of warming we are seeing now though can actually spawn more of a release of carbon into the atmosphere.  This would turn this gigantic carbon sink into a gigantic carbon source.

Now I am no scientist, but it is probably safe to assume a bit of a cause and effect action here.  Warming engagements like El Nino cause carbon release, causing more warming to the planet, causing more carbon release from big sinks like in the amazon, causing more warming to the planet – the cycle goes round and round. If you hadn’t given much thought to peat before, you certainly should now.