Climate Change

Protecting peatlands can help attain climate goals

Peatland degradation can trigger release of stored carbon. A UN report underlined ways to map and monitor them

By Deepanwita Gita Niyogi
Published: Friday 20 March 2020
A peatland. Source: flickr

Peatlands, which play an crucial role in regulating global climate by acting as carbon sinks, are facing degradation and need to be urgently monitored, according to a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations report released recently. 

The report comprised information as well as recommendations to countries on restoring and managing these valuable ecosystems.

Peatlands cover only three per cent of Earth’s surface. However, their degradation due to drainage, fire, agricultural use and forestry can trigger release of the stored carbon in a few decades.

The publication, authored by 35 experts, highlights important case studies from Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Peru in their attempts to map and monitor peatlands.

Peatlands contain 30 per cent of the world’s soil carbon. When drained, these emit greenhouse gases, contributing up to one gigaton of emissions per year through oxidation, according to the report.

According to Maria Nuutinen, co-author and FAO’s forestry officer, peatlands, a lot of drainage has happened since the time of the Roman Empire, both for cropping as well as grazing, particularly in Europe and Ukraine.

Mapping peatlands

Peatlands are formed due to the accumulation of partially decomposed plant remains over thousands of years under conditions of water-logging. To prevent their further degradation, these areas should be urgently mapped and monitored.

“Peatland mapping tells us where the peat is and what condition it is in. Together, with conservation and restoration measures, mapping also helps in maintaining water regulation services (reduction of flood intensities) and biodiversity,” said Nuutinen.

For countries keen on reducing emissions, monitoring the ground water level of peatlands is vital, or else they can turn into carbon emission sources.

Mapping methodologies include both ground and remotely-sensed input data. The report also offered an overview of the different monitoring approaches and their advantages and limitations.

According to the authors, mapping forms the basis. Without a map, there will be no sensible monitoring of peatlands.

The monitoring exercise requires a mix of satellite and ground-based exercises. To facilitate countries’ access to a cloud computing-based and free monitoring platform as well as high-quality imagery, FAO has developed two state-of-the-art peatland restoration monitoring modules.

System for Earth Observation Data Access, Processing and Analysis for Land Monitoring (SEPAL) platform contains a number of tools for land use and land use change monitoring. Two of these modules are for peatlands.

Pristine peatlands with no ongoing drainage. Source: FAO report

Drained peatlands with canals. Source: FAO report

Degraded peatlands

Nuutinen warned that badly degraded peatlands that have been drained for a longer period of time, potentially burned and intensely managed can become hydrophobic.

In this case, their re-wetting would not occur via natural means.

Though peatlands in North America and the Russian Federation are still intact, about 25 per cent have degraded in Europe, Central and Southeast Asia, East Africa, southern America and the Amazon, the report noted.

Restoration measures

Indonesia, which has 40 per cent of all tropical peatlands, has taken corrective measures to alter drainage and deforestation since the 1980s.

Their government created the Peat Ecosystem Restoration Information System (PRIMS), an online platform that provides information on the condition of peatlands and restoration efforts undertaken.

Restoration work of highland peatlands was also conducted in the Hindukush Himalayan (HKH) region. This was done to ensure water security for cities in their watersheds. In general, it can be said it is essential to conserve highland peatlands in particular, Nuutinen observed.

According to an ICIMOD report, the total peat area, excluding China, in the HKH region was 17,106 square kilometres in 2008. The degrading peat area was 8,236 square kilometres.

The Ruoergai plateau in HKH constitutes the most important area of high mountain peatlands worldwide, said Hans Joosten, professor of Peatland Studies and Palaeoecology, University of Greifswald, Germany.

It contains the world’s largest extent of high altitude peatlands. The region is subjected to heavy degradation, according to a study titled Extent and degradation of peatlands on the Ruoergai Plateau (Tibet, China).

In India, peatlands occupy roughly 320–1,000 square kilometres area. According to Nuutinen, the FAO soil organic carbon map showed low levels of top soil in India. It should be remembered that peatland drainage can deplete the organic layer relatively rapidly.

“Thus, it would be beneficial to conduct further peatland mapping in India,” she added.

Other benefits

Peatlands occur in different climate zones. While in tropical climate, they can occur in mangroves, in Arctic regions, peatlands are dominated by mosses. Some mangrove species are known to develop peatland soils under them.

Besides climate mitigation, peatlands are important for archaeology, as they maintain pollen, seeds and human remains for a long time in their acidic and water-logged conditions.

In many countries, pristine peatlands are important for recreation activities. These areas also support livelihood in the form of pastoralism.

The vegetation growing on pristine peatlands provide different kinds of fibres for construction activities and handicrafts, the FAO author said.

Many wetland species produce berries, mushrooms and fruits, often economically important to local communities. Peatlands also provide fishing and hunting opportunities. It is also possible to practise paludiculture or wet agriculture on rewetted peatlands.

According to the Greifswald Mire Centre Strategy 2018-2022, rewetting of peatlands reduces emissions and can play an important role in achieving the objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

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