I published a paper earlier this month, all about peatlands in tropical latitudes. (Surprising, eh!) It proved an unexpectedly great opportunity to work with a new and interdisciplinary bunch of co-authors….
And I created my first ‘thread‘! It seems to be what one does now to spread the word about new published research. My main incentive for tweeting, however, was to share the ‘personalised’ link I had been sent by the publisher, Elsevier, as corresponding author. Anyone interested can download the paper, for free, for the first 50 days post-publication. After that, the outcome of two years of information gathering by 10 people and many 1,000s of hours of publicly-funded research before that, will only be accessible to people from universities or other institutions that can afford the annual subscription to the journal, Anthropocene. Because this review paper had been unplanned when applications for research and dissemination funding were written, and was completed outside of one single research project, pooling time and resources from multiple people funded by multiple sources, we didn’t have the £2,000+ Article Publishing Charge to publish it via the Gold Open Access route. Instead, we opted for the shady back-alley route: Green Open Access. This means making the peer-reviewed, accepted version of our manuscript (the version accepted after the final review) available on our institutional website (e.g., here). I am certainly pleased that this is an option (after a 12-month embargo, it seems!*), but it does make finding the article an online adventure that time-poor academics and (often) under-resourced practitioners might opt out of. So for now, I apologise for not going for ‘gold’…
A few weeks ago, I was invited by Rach Allan to join her 40 for Tea podcast, showcasing women working on topics that inspire her. She’d remembered conversations we’d had in the past about peat and the importance of soils, and so invited me along to her podcast kingdom to have a chat about these topics over tea. Here is the episode. And below is the introduction Rach wrote to advertise it on LinkedIn…
Do you remember I talked about feeling overwhelmed? With the Climate conversation And everything else.
I had started drinking tea To get to a different kind of truth of the matter. Talking to people rather than Be bamboozled by all the digital noise.
I promised to share what I found out, whilst having tea, with incredible humans across the globe. Simple moments.
This season has been with Powerhouse Women. Normal women, Overcoming adversity Who are upto stuff. Warrior women.
Today, Althea Davies and I launched a guidebook. Nope, it’s not a guide to our local peatlands. It’s a Guide to Better Science on Interdisciplinary Research, published by the British Ecological Society and available to download for everyone, for free. We were invited to create the guide after running a workshop on tools of the interdisciplinary trade at the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting in 2019. Since then, we’ve been gathering information and contributions from some inspirational researchers, who reflect deeply on how to make interdisciplinary research (more) effective. We’re so grateful for their wise input, and for the guidance offered by Kate Harrison, the BES’ expert in-house Editor. I can’t fault my pretty great co-author either!
You can learn more about why we wrote the guide through our post on People and Nature’s Relational Thinking blog. And if you do read the guide, and find it useful…or lacking, we would love to hear.
After a year’s delay, COP26 has now been, and gone. And the next Conference of the Parties, the 27th gathering of the 197 countries who make the decisions on how to fulfil the goals of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (which they all signed up for), is already being talked about. Next year, each nations’ negotiators, and their support teams, will meet in Egypt to share what they’ve been up to over the last year; what practical actions and/or policy changes and/or plans they’ve made to stick to their ‘promise’ of reducing their country’s greenhouse gas emissions, and by the amount that scientists think is needed in order for the world to stave off dangerous increases in temperature.
Are we not already beyond the dangerous increases stage? I think most scientists would say that the imperative of maintaining temperatures to 1.5°C is already unachievable. And misses the point. Certainly, the details of the agreement of nations made at COP26, to essentially “phase down” rather than “phase out” the use of fossil fuels, will not accelerate our approach to limiting temperature rise to the mythical 1.5°C. But progress was made, I have heard.
Reflecting on the various conversations I’ve had with people much more involved in COP26 than me, and on reports I’ve read from the event, it seems that ‘nature’ and (some of) the voices of (some of) the people who aren’t normally given space at these talks, were considered. Big business is also, necessarily, supporting the development of fora between trading nations and of tools to more accurately monitor supply chains, especially for products coming from countries with vast areas of forests and peatlands, vulnerable to the power of the global commodities trade. The Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade (FACT) dialogue is one fora. And Sainsbury’s are one ginormous business having a go at leading the way.
There were numerous individuals attending the Conference who were also leading the way. A great number walked to COP26 from across the UK. One very special guest walked to COP26 from Syria. Little Amal made the journey (with a bit of help!) to tell the “unpalatable truth” about the challenges faced by so many refugees. Michael Morpurgo gives a moving Point of View on the inspiration behind this brave girl. And her presence at COP26 also reminds us of the growing injustice wrought by climate change, in addition to the injustice that has gone into creating it. But I cannot talk with any authority on that subject. On the subject of peat however, I can.
Through my role as the Coordinator of the Expert Group on Peatlands and Biodiversity, of the Scientific Advisory Board of the International Peatland Society, I had the opportunity to give a whistle-stop tour of the peatlands of the Peruvian Amazon to the audience convened by the Global Peatlands Initiative. The UN-led Initiative is a multi-stakeholder partnership that aims to coordinate and share information and expertise with the goal of promoting the conservation and sustainable management of the world’s peatlands. I presented the work of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium to the audience of the Peatland Pavilion at COP26, within the Peatland Partnerships in Climate Change Mitigation and Nature Recovery session, organised by the International Peatland Society. Intact peatlands are increasingly being acknowledged as a key natural way of mitigating against (through absorbing carbon) and preventing further increases in (if not drained & transformed) atmospheric CO2. It was evident from the extensive engagement that the Peatland Pavilion achieved (Michele Obama even popped by, apparently!) that peat is becoming acknowledged as one of the “superstars” of nature-based approaches to achieving Nationally Determined Contributions.
I made a podcast! Or rather co-hosted it, and wasn’t responsible for the heavy job of planning or editing it. I just asked questions. And could have gone on asking questions for hours. It was fascinating to hear the new-ish Director of the St Andrews Botanic Gardens, Dr Harry Watkins, talk about his work in urban forestry and landscape architecture, biosecurity and now in transforming what was a “museum” of plants into a maze of resilient and adaptable habitats. After many years of not questioning the benefits vs. increasing costs of the status quo, and its relevance to contemporary society and its challenges, the Botanic Gardens now are. And their response has been controversial amongst their supporters. They are building a sand dune in the middle of the Gardens… It’s all part of the Tangled Bank project, a response to the challenges and changes resulting from ongoing climate change. Any opposition to the project just need to listen to Harry explain the reasons behind it to be convinced of its importance. Why didn’t this change come sooner even?! And will other Botanic Gardens follow suit?
After many more hours, and months of work than initially anticipated, our exhibition of Peruvian peatland pics is live. I sketched the article below with colleagues for publicity purposes; this press release adds a few more details. And the exhibition itself is available to everyone everywhere fortunate enough to have an internet connection: https://peatlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/. Compiling the exhibition has very much been a team effort, with colleagues Katy Roucoux and Althea Davies. I’ve learnt a huge amount from their invaluable input and feedback on all aspects of this ‘outreach’ project. I hope we’ve created an accessible narrative that will inspire people to look twice at peatlands, temperate and tropical, and to consider what role they play in all of our lives. I’ve also learnt, the hard way, about the need to balance what can be a very diverse portfolio of work in academia, with publications still being the unit of currency and stamp of expertise for the (academic and employment) world. Now to learning how to achieve that balance before it’s too late…
This autumn, a touch of the tropical has come to southeast Scotland. From early August until late October, 2021, the St Andrews Botanic Gardens are hosting a photography exhibition all about Peru’s lowland tropical peatlands. Lydia Cole, Katy Roucoux and Althea Davies, lecturers from the School of Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews, in collaboration with the Botanic Gardens and with funding from the British Ecological Society and The Leverhulme Trust, have curated a collection of photographs that take you on a tour of the steaming swamps of the Peruvian Amazon.
The selected photographs were taken by researchers from the Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Leeds, and the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana (IIAP, Institute for Research on the Peruvian Amazon) across ten years of fieldwork in Peru’s peatlands. The exhibition explores three key themes: ecosystems – highlighting the “ecosystem engineers” responsible for carbon storage; fieldwork – describing experiences of data collection in the swamps; and people – illuminating the communities and activities associated with the peatlands.
In addition to the physical exhibition, a virtual gallery is housing the photographs and captions to provide online access to audiences near and far: www.peatlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk. The website is also available in Spanish and will be live beyond when the exhibition closes at the Botanic Gardens at the end of October 2021. When accessibility improves in Peru and COVID-cases stabilise, colleagues from IIAP plan to display a Spanish-language version of the exhibition in a National Reserve in the Amazonian region of Peru.
Peatlands are a distinctive type of ecosystem where the surface vegetation contributes to, and lives on top of, layers of accumulating peat. Peat is made up of leaves, roots and partially decomposed organic matter, which builds up when waterlogged, low-oxygen, low-nutrient conditions prevent decomposer organisms from recycling dead plant remains. Over hundreds to thousands of years, a thick layer of carbon-rich peat accumulates. With climate change a key challenge faced by global society, conserving the carbon stored in peatlands is becoming an international priority for mitigation efforts.
Peatlands make up over 20% of the land area in Scotland. The most common type of peatland is a blanket bog, where layers of peat carpet the bedrock, forming waterlogged, mossy and shrubby landscapes. In the Peruvian Amazon, peatlands look very different as they are generally forested and often flooded; they are the archetypal ‘swamp’. Over 80% of Scotland’s peatlands are thought to be degraded, whilst Peru’s peatlands are mostly still in an intact state.
Researchers at the University of St Andrews and other members of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium, are measuring and mapping the distribution of carbon within the Peruvian Amazon peatlands, the biodiversity they contain and their long-term dynamics, to understand how they develop over centuries to thousands of years. Other projects, as many of the photographs highlight, are exploring the value, meaning and cultural importance of the peatlands to the communities who live there. The photographs in the exhibition have been selected to provide an insight into not only these peatland ecosystems and the people who live in and around them, but also the experience of doing research in these carbon-rich environments. You can find out more about the different projects and team members at www.tropicalwetlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk.
If you do have a look at the exhibition and it leaves you with questions or comments, the curators would love to hear them. Please email Lydia Cole (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any feedback.
To coincide with World Peatland’s Day, on Wednesday 2nd June, 2021, three members of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium, Lydia Cole, Katy Roucoux and Althea Davies, launched a new website, which will be showcasing an online exhibition from August onwards. Funded by a British Ecological Society Outreach Grant, they have developed an exhibition of photographs illustrating life in the peatlands of the Peruvian Amazon. The exhibition will be physically held in the beautiful surroundings of the St Andrews Botanic Gardens, located in Fife, Scotland, from 1st August until 31st October, 2021. For those unable to get to the gardens, not least our colleagues and audience in Peru, the exhibition will also be available in an online gallery (in English and Spanish languages). Alongside the photographs, the website will contain educational materials for schools, with information sheets that will help teachers to incorporate aspects of the exhibition and our peatland research, into their teaching.
The three key themes of the exhibition, i.e., ecosystems, fieldwork, and people and peatlands, take the audience on a journey through Peru’s Amazonian peatlands. All of the selected photographs have been kindly provided by members of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium, and were taken during various periods of field research over the last decade. We’d like to thank all of those who contributed, both in the UK and Peru, without whom this exhibition would not be possible. We hope you can all join us online, or in person, when the exhibition opens in August.
Nine years, five jobs, four cities and three paper rejections….and I’ve finally got the ultimate chapter of my PhD published. It’s been a journey! There’s so much I could write here about haphazard directions, happenstance, failure, resilience, the importance of ice-cream, etc., but I won’t. I hope there’ll be time for any helpful reflections in non-Zoom person soon. For now, here is the article: The future of Southeast Asia’s tropical peatlands: Local and global perspectives, free to download for the next 50 days (thanks for the token, Elsevier). And thanks to all of those people, both acknowledged in it and not, who have been ‘there’ over the last nine+ years.
And paper’s “highlights”:
People have occupied Sarawak’s coastal peatlands for c. 200 years.
In the last century deforestation & peatland conversion have been widespread.
Local stakeholders perceive few challenges & many opportunities in using peatlands.
This conflicts with the international community promoting peatland conservation.
Differences in knowledge between local & global communities need to be addressed.
If any one of you out there reading do actually read this overly wordy piece and have feedback to share, I would love to hear it.
Last December (2020), Alex Chausson and I ran a workshop at the British Ecological Society’s virtual Festival of Ecology. After running a workshop the previous year on interdisciplinarity, this seemed like a natural next step. I learnt a huge amount from the process, not least about how to increase the likelihood of “having impact” through research. Here is a short post Alex and I put together for the IIED blog, to share our key learnings from the event.
In December 2020, Charlotte Wheeler and I ran a session at the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting, all about peatlands. Here is my round-up of that Zoom-show. This piece was first published in Peatlands International 1.2021 and is being republished here with kind permission from the International Peatland Society.
On 18th December 2020, a group of peat experts gathered in a Zoom-room to share their tales of peatlands from across the world. They were all invited to take part in the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting, in a Thematic Session focusing on the climatic, ecological and societal importance of peatlands. Each of the eight speakers had significant knowledge and experience to share on a particular geography of peatlands and/or thematic area of research, from investigating burning in the peat swamp forests of Borneo to exploring research gaps in the Sphagnum-dominated bogs of Wales. Here we summarize some of the key points raised by each of our esteemed speakers.
The session was opened by Susan Page with an excellent summary of the key roles that peatlands play in societies across the world, and of the key challenges they face. Despite the multiple services they provide (as illustrated by Fig. 1), peatlands are being subjected to many different drivers of change (Loisel et al., 2020), which are degrading the peat carbon store at a rate that is incompatible with recovery over human timescales (Goldstein et al., 2020). Sue reminded us of the importance of addressing the world’s drained peatlands, a huge and increasing source of carbon emissions that will continue to emit until the peat is depleted. Within decades, the use of this finite resource for extractive and agricultural purposes will no longer be possible.
Agriculture is one of the dominant ways in which people interact with peatlands across the world. In the peatlands of Southeast Asia, and notably Indonesia, smallholder farms and industrial plantations growing oil palm on peat are common. This has led to the generation of emissions from peatlands across Southeast Asia over the last 25 years, approx. 2500 Mt C, equivalent to half of the complete stock of carbon held in the UK’s peatlands, approx. 5500 Mt C. These UK-based stocks are also rapidly dwindling, as many organic soils are exploited for commercial agriculture and horticulture. In the year 2000, it is thought that peatlands worldwide changed from a net sink to a net source of carbon. In addition to emissions, peat subsidence is a significant issue, and one that will prevent use of peatlands in the future, especially with sea-level rise in coastal areas.
How then can peatlands continue to support the many livelihoods that depend on this wetland ecosystem and its resources? Balancing livelihood and climate security is a key challenge. One of the solutions is to think more strategically about where to produce food. Carlson et al. (2016) demonstrated that those peatland areas that produce some of the highest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from drainage-based agriculture, also produce some of the lowest returns when it comes to nutritional calories.
Sue reminded the audience that there is no such thing as truly sustainable management of drained peat soils; ‘responsible’ use is the only option. The essential first step in responsible use and in addressing the livelihood and climate challenge is raising water tables, leading to reduced emissions and increasing the lifetime of peat. Further research is needed and trials performed to explore viable ways of producing food using wet agriculture, or paludiculture (as named in the areas with the highest water table). There will be constraints to what can be produced and where, and inevitable trade-offs, but dryland agriculture is not a sustainable option for peatlands. Some of the key challenges that still need to be overcome include knowledge gaps, selecting appropriate types of crops, and balancing the needs of food security and livelihoods. Sue concluded by emphasising that there are significant compromises, constraints and inadequacies in education that need addressing to promote responsible peatland management. But as peat-based emissions continue to use up our national carbon budgets under the Paris Agreement, coupled with the continuing loss of agricultural land, the global community needs to act NOW.
Mark Harrison continued the discussion on emissions, but with reference to fire. The now frequent burning of peatlands in Southeast Asia is causing huge carbon, health and economic losses. What we know less about is the impact that fires are having on biodiversity. When forests burn, the canopy cover is greatly reduced, causing significant reductions in habitat and creating exposed ground that further dries. Studies have shown that, for example, there are lower abundances of butterflies in peatland areas impacted by burning. Aside from understanding more about the consequences of the fires for wildlife, another important, and often complex knowledge gap is around why the fires occur. Proximate causes include peat drainage, land use change and the use of fire in peatlands by people, whether purposefully or accidentally, creating ignition sources that are inadequately controlled. Once the reasons for peatland fires have been identified, solutions for managing and restoring them can be trialled (Harrison et al., 2020a). Mark emphasised that before any restoration work is even conceived, it is vital to ask what goal of that intervention is; restoration for what, and for whom? The Kalimantan Lestari project (translating to Sustainable Kalimantan), encompassing a multi-institutional interdisciplinary research team, will aim to ask these questions, along with many others. Coordinated by the University of Exeter, it will address the challenge of fire in the peatlands of Indonesian Borneo, with a focus on: (i) drivers of fire; (ii) impacts of fire; and (iii) ways of reducing the risk of and to increase resilience to fire, with the central goal of working holistically with and supporting local communities. As a final note, Mark brought our attention to the some of the challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to tropical peatlands (Harrison et al., 2020b).
From Southeast Asia’s largely degraded, fire-prone peatlands, the focus switched to the intact peat-forming forests of the Cuvette Central in Central Africa. A huge area of peatland was mapped by Greta Dargie in 2017 (Dargie et al., 2017), lying within the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo. Although the geospatial boundaries of the peatland are now known, there remain huge uncertainties in the carbon stocks held within the peat complex; a stock of great international interest. Greta reminded us to think beyond carbon though, to appreciate that these areas also hold spiritual value to local communities, along with many of the ecosystem services mentioned by our host of speakers. In acknowledgement of this important resource, the two Congolese Governments signed the Brazzaville Declaration in March 2018, which aims to improve cooperation and conservation activities between these two peat-rich nations. There are already some protective structures in place on the ground, e.g. Ramsar Sites, National Protected Areas, but with the pressures of developing economies and increasing interest in hydrocarbon extraction from the region, there is a need to enhance protection and the accountability of the Government. The international community must provide financial and other forms of support to help avoid dangerous land use change, and to ensure the peatlands are in the most favourable condition to withstand the unknown consequences of ongoing climate change in the region. New maps suggest that large areas of the Cuvette Central are made up of hydrologically isolated domed peatlands (Davenport et al., 2020), which are more vulnerable to the predicted warmer and drier conditions to come. There is currently a huge research effort underway, CongoPeat, to explore the past and present dynamics of these important tropical peatlands, and to better predict how they might respond to future climate change. The project aims to provide the two Congolese Governments with best information possible, to enable them to make wise decisions for the climate, livelihoods and biodiversity.
The Congo is not the only region with largely intact but relatively threatened tropical peatlands. The peatlands of the Peruvian Amazon contain huge volumes of carbon, stored under a large diversity of wetland forest types and open areas. Despite the peatlands being relatively intact, due to no or limited drainage activities within the flooding basin of the Amazon river, they are various notable uses of these ecosystems. Euridice Honorio described the harvesting of aguaje fruit from Mauritia flexuosa palm swamps, often found growing on peat. This harvesting is important for local livelihoods, providing them with a natural resource to sell at local markets. It is also predominantly sustainable a practice, and as such, an example of the importance of incorporating local knowledge and practices into landscape conservation and management plans. There is concern, however, that the degradation of these peatlands is an imminent possibility, as rice cultivation, mining, oil palm plantations and associated new infrastructure creep geographically closer (Fig. 2). Euridice emphasised the need for more protected areas, strengthened territorial management strategies and the use of scientific knowledge in policy making. But the first step is for greater recognition of the peatlands themselves. Euridice is currently working with Peru’s Ministry of Environment to create a definition for the nation’s peatlands, followed by a strategy for protecting them.
From the tropical latitudes, the discussion moved to the temperate zone, and in particular, Ireland. With the third greatest area of peat in Europe, Ireland is a nation with an extensive history of peat extraction for fuel. This practice has resulted in 82% of its peatlands undergoing drainage-based use, with the closest to a natural state being those under restoration. Catherine Pschenyckyj illustrated this point with the fact that 90% of Ireland’s soils are now carbon sources, rather the sinks they would previously have been as intact peatlands. In addition to carbon emissions, peat slides are an emergent property of these degraded landscapes, with impacts on the quality of water supplies, on communities of aquatic biota and on local people. However, Catherine provided encouraging news on the changes that are on the horizon: peat-fuelled power stations are closing; peatland rehabilitation projects are underway, with Bord na Mona, one of the largest energy generation companies in Ireland, investing money in restoring the sites from which they have harvested peat for many years; and projects monitoring restoration success being resourced in parallel. However, peat extraction has not halted yet, with still significant plans in place, driven in part by the horticulture industry. Catherine ended by emphasising the need to find solutions that benefit the environment and businesses.
Crossing back over the Irish Sea, Jon Walker spoke about Welsh peatlands, and namely a project he is working on to identify key gaps in the evidence base that is available for developing policy around peatland management in Wales. Through a literature review, he identified a dearth of research on forestry practices in Welsh peatlands, and a bias towards certain areas or topics, such as greenhouse gas emissions. Results from this important study, highlighting themes that require greater research focus, will feed into the Welsh Peatland Research Network, and in turn, direct the generation of robust science to fill evidence gaps for the National Peatland Action Programme of the country.
Moving to the north of the UK, Rebekka Artz described the work she has been involved in to map Scotland’s peatlands. There has been an increasing interest in, and need to map peatlands all over the world, but in particular in those places where there is money to invest in restoration. In Scotland, £250 million has been devoted to peatland restoration; the nation where the greatest area of peatlands is being restored across the world. The Scottish Government now has to decide where they can make the most effective and efficient investment of those funds. The first step is to locate the peatlands in an unfavourable condition, using models that predict how intact a peatland is from a range of remotely sensed cues, such as surface moisture. High resolution satellite data, i.e. from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 and 2, along with training data, primarily obtained through ground surveys, are key to making the modelling more accurate in depicting the situation on the ground (e.g. Williamson et al., 2020). Once the condition of the peatlands has been assessed, priority areas identified and restoration work commenced, the progress of interventions needs to be monitored. Variables such as change in vegetation and water table dynamics can be measured remotely, to give an indication of the resilience of peatlands to drought conditions. With this information, Rebekka and colleagues are working to develop an online decision support tool to assist stakeholders in choosing the most appropriate management options for a particular peatland in a given condition. Restoration tools developed in Scotland may prove useful in other regions, such as Canada, where vast areas of peatlands are ripe for restoration after the damaging exploitative activities of past decades.
Finally, Sarah Proctor, of the IUCN UK Peatland Programme, provided food for thought to close the session: “we need business unusual”. The recognition by UK society of the great importance of peatlands has been slow, but does appear to have now occurred and at a critical time. This is exemplified by the publication of the UK Peatland Strategy (Fig.2) in 2018. This document details solutions for managing peatlands across the UK and its overseas territories, with a vision and targets for a healthier peatland nation by 2040. The specific goals of the strategy include: (i) Conservation, of blanket bogs (globally rare), raised bogs, fens; (ii) Restoration of heavily degraded peatland to functioning ecosystems, e.g. of Blackhill in the Peak District; (iii) Adaptive Management, moving away from our established culture of drainage-based dryland agriculture, which is a huge source of GHG emissions; (iv) Sustainable Management, considering the truly sustainable options for peatland use; (v) Coordination, via instruments such as the UK Peatland Code and the Eyes on the Bog Initiative; and, vitally (vi) Communication, producing a wide variety of resources for different stakeholders. Sarah ended by emphasising that healthy peatlands are central to so many of the other goals we are striving for at a national and international level and which will be discussed next year in Glasgow at the 26th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26).
The talks provided an overview of some the unique and many shared challenges that peatlands and their associated communities face across the world. Awareness of the importance of these ecosystems is rising, but there is still a lack of integrated thinking and sustainable actions at national to international levels. Research into peatland functioning and management has perhaps never been as pressing as it is now. And until we have the answers, panelists reminded the audience of the central rule of peatland management: to keep these wetlands wet.