Part of the missing carbon sink?


A swamp in northern Borneo, same-same-but-different to those in central Africa.

Yesterday, a very exciting article was published in Nature, describing the vast area of peatland that has just been mapped and measured in the Congo Basin.  It’s even bigger than Wales, apparently.  It was discovered by Dr Greta Dargie and her former supervisor, Dr Simon Lewis, after many a long and hard hour spent traversing the unstable, humid and mosquito-ridden peatlands of the DRC and Republic of Congo.

The ‘finding’ of this peatland has elevated our most recent estimate of the magnitude of the peat carbon store across Africa by an incredible five times; vastly increasing our calculation of the total volume of tropical peatlands also.  Whilst it’s probably no news to local people that there’s a massive swamp in their back garden, it is unlikely that they, and evidently the global community, appreciated the real extent of this waterlogged forest and how much peat it was hiding underneath.  Why should they?  Underground carbon (a.k.a. peat), along with its climate change mitigation powers (and REDD+ revenue potential), is a relatively abstract concept.  But a hugely important natural phenomenon.

Given the remote location of the Cuvette Centrale peatlands the threat of industrial agriculture is unusually rare (unlike in Southeast Asia).  However this carbon store is not immune to the potential and pervasive impact of climate change, and specifically climatic drying, where evapotranspiration may exceed precipitation, as Professor Sue Page aptly explains.

I was honoured to be asked to comment on this important finding for a piece being written by the International Business Times.  I think I said some of what was quoted.  The Guardian has written a piece covering the work and its significance, as well as the The New York Times.  And for a more detailed account from Simon, have a read of The Conservation.

Well done, Team Congo-Basin, on such a spectacular peat of work.  Now we need to keep it there.