Two people looking at a bog pool discussing the merits peat bogs have in tacking climate change. Credit: Still taken from James Hutton Institute 360 VR film

Peatland ACTION case study: What's the connection between peat and carbon storage?

World leaders have gathered in Madrid for COP25 (02 - 13 December 2019) to discuss climate change, and set next year's targets to keep pace with carbon neutrality by 2050. 

What’s climate change got to do with peat bogs? Peat bogs play a crucial role in the carbon cycle. Peat bogs in good condition have the potential to offer a significant nature-based solution to tackling climate change. Andrew McBride (Peatland ACTION Delivery Manager) picks up the story. 

 

Andrew McBride (Peatland ACTION/SNH) discussing the merits peat bogs have in tacking climate change. Still from James Hutton Institute film peat and carbon

Andrew McBride (Peatland ACTION/SNH) discussing the merits peat bogs have in tacking climate change.

Credit: Still taken from James Hutton Institute 360 VR film funded by SEFARI. Filmed and directed by Andrew Macdonald of Exhibit Scotland.
The film discusses the importance of peatland restoration and takes the viewer right into the middle of the bogs!

 

 

We need to find ways to drastically reduce our global footprint, especially our carbon footprint; it is estimated that 60% of our ecological footprint is carbon. One place to look is definitely peatlands – and Scotland has plenty of those! Ecosystems like peatlands are capable of absorbing and storing large amounts of carbon dioxide known as “carbon sinks,” making them ideal for helping to tackle climate change. 

What usually springs to peoples’ minds when asked about carbon sinks are trees, whether it’s the local woodland where you walk your dog every day or the tropical rain forests of Borneo. But research suggests that trees are actually not the most efficient way to store carbon. Other often forgotten ecosystems, like peat bogs, can make a big impact.

 

Global peatland coverage - Map (Credit: Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands IUCN UK Peatland Programme)

Global peatland coverage - Map.

Credit: Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands IUCN UK Peatland Programme

 

 

About 60% of the world’s wetlands are made of peat. Peat forms in waterlogged, acidic conditions. Layers upon layers of the partially decomposed sphagnum mosses and other bog plants build up, forming peat. The further down into the peat bog you go, the more decomposed and darker the peat becomes as it gets squished by the layer on top. This peat forming process is very slow - it can take 100 years to form just one meter of peat.

Equally peat bogs are very low in nutrients, and only very specialised plants - like sphagnum, cotton grass and sundews - can grow here, but more importantly for climate change, the carbon in these plants are trapped in perpetuity.           

 

Peat core taken from a blanket bog above Cromar, Loch Lomond. ©Lorne Gill/SNH. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.nature.scot

Peat core taken on a peat bog at Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Scotland. The peat here is dark at it was taken at 4 meters deep using a Russian corer

©Lorne Gill/SNH. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.nature.scot

 

 

As peat is formed in waterlogged conditions, it is hard to disturb, making it a very efficient carbon sink. However, if you drain or burn the peat, the balance is disturbed.

Sphagnum moss growing in bog pool. ©Lorne Gill/SNH. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.nature.scot

A Scottish peatland landscape is a canvas of colour: springy carpets of green, yellow and red sphagnum mosses growing by a bog pool, white cotton grass gently swaying in a light breeze, and purple heathers dotted on the fringes.

©Lorne Gill/SNH. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.nature.scot

 

 

For example, draining water away from peat bogs causes the peat to dry, resulting in the vegetation decomposing much faster – and the release of carbon. Similarly burning peat – just as burning a tree – has the potential to release hundreds of years of stored carbon back into the atmosphere.

Scottish peatlands store 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon; this is equivalent to 140 years’ worth of Scotland’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions. Peatland ACTION – with funding from Scottish Government - is working with land managers and partners to restore this vital carbon sink.

In essence, the project is returning peat bogs into thriving wetlands. For climate. For nature. For people. For the planet.

This great short film, which you can pan 360 degrees, explains the science behind why we are working so hard to rewet and restore the bog habitats of Scotland.

For further information, or to get involved with PeatlandACTION

Peatland ACTION case studies: We demonstrate links between peat condition and: fisheries; grouse; carbon storage; wildlife; landscapes; human history; and so much more. 

If you would like to contribute to the on-going work of Peatland ACTION please contact [email protected]

Project information: www.nature.scot/peatlandaction

 

First published to celebrated World Wetlands Day on 2 February 2019.