Peatlands are available around us, albeit being depleted, and these lands haven’t got that much of attention when it comes to saving the environment. However, new research states that restoring them now—not later—will benefit us in the long run.
The new study has calculated the monetary costs of delaying restoration of peatlands. It also includes the costs when we reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Improving peatlands immediately
Researchers investigated how improvements to peatlands that have suffered from drainage, erosion or burning would be beneficial to society. So, they put monetary value on the societal benefits of restoration. That includes reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, increased water quality, and improved wildlife habitat.
The study focused on Scotland, a country that has 20% peatland surface. According to the researchers, restoration in this country would provide £191m annually of societal benefits if it took place by 2027, rather than between 2039-2050.
When the researchers took later restoration into account—taking place between 2028-2038, they saw reduced benefits. There were some significant benefits, at £116 millions, but that’s not the maximum potential.
Coauthor Professor Julia Martin-Ortega from the University of Leeds said, “We should be restoring peatlands now, rather than postponing it. As the climate crisis gathers pace, policy makers are deciding on when and how to invest in ecosystem restoration.
“Peatland restoration should be a priority. The more we delay it, the more we lose, not just in terms of the benefits to the environment, but in monetary terms to society as a whole.”
Are peatlands actually that important?
If you’re not familiar with peatlands, you may have been calling them bogs, quags, or mires. These lands cover over 400 million hectares on this planet, which is about 3% of Earth’s surface.
Peatlands store a third of the world’s soil carbon, so they’re the largest and the most space-effective carbon store of all terrestrial ecosystems. Not just storing carbon, peatlands also provide multiple benefits such as clean water and support for wildlife.
Unfortunately, humanity has been using peatlands for fuel for the longest time. Moreover, peatland landscapes have been affected by burning, drainage and forest plantation.
Imagine the effect: large parts of peatlands being damaged and their benefits being undermined or threatened.
Per estimation, by as early as 2050, the majority of carbon currently stored in UK peatlands will be at risk of loss, and that this risk is aggravated considerably by 2080.
Lead author Dr. Klaus Genk said, “Delaying restoration action may not only result in further ecosystem degradation, but also negatively impact on ecosystem resilience.
“Peatlands with a healthy cover of peat moss are expected to be less susceptible to future climate change.
“This also implies that substantial additional greenhouse gas emissions that accelerate global warming in the long term might be avoided by restoring peatlands earlier rather than later.”
Backing previous study on peatland restorations
Previously, a study showed that restoring peatland generates social benefits, and that these benefits are larger than the costs of the restoration. Well, this new research states that those social benefits would be gone if we kept on delaying restoration.
Dr. Genk said, “Our study indicates that the enhanced robustness of peatlands against future climate change is an important factor for greater benefits of early, rather than delayed, restoration action.”
Right now, the majority of peatlands have been degraded. That could backfire to the environment and humanity: they could release more carbon rather than they currently store.
“Delaying peatland restoration not only means more carbon loss to the atmosphere, but more economic loss. Not only do we need to restore peatlands, but we cannot delay it or we will actually lose out in terms of benefits to society,” said Dr. Genk.
Getting to know a bit about peatlands
For those of you who are not familiar with peatlands, here’s a little info. Peat is partially decomposed plant material that builds up over decades, centuries and millennia in oxygen-starved, waterlogged conditions.
As mentioned above, peatlands cover only 3% of the world’s landscape. For example, we have Alaka‘i Swamp in Hawaii, which is home to some of the rarest plants in the world. There are Ice Age plants in the Rockies’ peatlands.
Moreover, two largest carbon storehouses in the world are found in the Hudson Bay Lowlands and Siberia. And we’ve got the recently discovered 55,000 square miles of peatland in Congo in 2017.
Even though peatlands don’t have that many area coverage in our planet, they play an important role in climate regulation, water filtration, flood and wildfire mitigation. They’re also safe havens for many newly discovered and critically endangered species.
Wildfires may be natural and we can let them be at times. However, humanity has sometimes made wildfires worse and it has exacerbated peatland degradation by building infrastructure, energy projects, mining (burning peat for fuel and electricity), and many more.
Dale Vitt is a Southern Illinois University plant biologist who has long been studying peatland ecosystems. He thought that a lot of eco conscious people have overlooked peatlands for a long time, despite the benefits.
“People talk a great deal about reducing emissions by planting trees, but few talk about peatlands because they can’t believe that something so small is so important.
“There’s still so much to learn about them, but maybe not enough time to find out because of how quickly we are destroying or degrading them as a warming climate dries them out.”
The ability to regulate climate
When it comes to the ability to regulate climate, peatlands are the top of their game.
One square meter of peatland from the Hudson Bay Lowlands of Northern Canada, the second-largest peatland in the world, holds about five times the amount of carbon as one square meter of tropical rainforest in the Amazon.
When we lose more peatlands, that stored carbon are out—released. For instance, Siberian peatland fires in 2020 emitted a record 244 million tons of carbon dioxide.
That’s why scientists are getting more concerned about the increasingly degrading peatlands.
Temperatures have risen and droughts have worsened, and these could dry out peatlands could dry out at an accelerating rate and be subject to more wildfires, turning even more of them from carbon sinks to carbon sources.
Experimenting to understand the impacts
Randy Kolka, a soil scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, and his colleagues ran experiments in 10 chambers, designed to mimic what will happen to peatland ecosystems under various climate change scenarios.
The scenarios range from no change to a realistic atmospheric temperature increase of 4 degrees.
Then, they tracked changes in many aspects: water growth, water and peat levels, microbial activity, fine root development, and other factors that control the movement of carbon into and out of the chamber-enclosed bogs.
Kolka and his colleagues have found that the warmed bog plots are quickly making the transition from being carbon accumulators to carbon emitters. What’s more, those that were warmed modestly lost carbon five to 20 times faster than historical rates.
Vitt said, “It takes a long time for peatlands to form naturally. We can try to restore them. But what comes back is often not what was originally there.
“We’re getting better at recolonizing, but it’s expensive and complicated by the drying that comes with climate change. The best strategy is to protect what we have.”