The highs of boggy flows in 2020

To kick off what has already been an incredible year on many fronts (!), I was tasked with writing a post for the International Peatland Society’s blog, in my role as the Coordinator of the Peatlands and Biodiversity Expert Group within the organisation. Mark Harrison joined me in extracting some positive news about peatlands from 2020, to inspire us to keep speaking up for swamps in the year ahead. (The piece below is being reposted from the IPS blog, accessed here.) Onwards, and bog-wards.

As we say goodbye to 2020, to what has been an incredibly and unpredictably challenging year in many ways for many people, it is important to sift through the muddy (swamp) waters for positive news. For peatlands, the last 12 months have provided many sources of hope. Various happenings have brought the societal relevance of peatlands further into the public eye, and shone light on some of the great work of peatland scientists and practitioners across the world. Here are a few highlights (hopefully you also know of many more!).

There is a passionate campaign underway to make The Flow Country into a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced in July that it will support the bid to UNESCO to consider this vast area of blanket bog as a significant jewel in humanity’s crown. If The Flow Country peatlands, which cover 2,000 km2 within the region of Caithness and Sutherland in northern Scotland, are given World Heritage Site status, they will enjoy increased resources for their protection and restoration (supporting further excellent work such as this), and helping the UK to achieve its net zero climate targets. The campaign team are busy working on the nomination materials, which will be reviewed by the UNESCO Committee in 2023. In the meantime whilst we await their decision, the RSPB’s Forsinard Flows reserve continues to provide access to this wonderful site (in the absence of Covid-restrictions!).

This year has seen noteworthy articles published that raise awareness of the importance of peatlands as an irrecoverable carbon stock (Goldstein et al., 2020), highlight the importance of better understanding peatland carbon dynamics and incorporating them into global climate models (Loisel et al., 2020), evaluate the relative impacts of incentive vs. deterrent interventions on peat fire outcomes (Carmenta et al., 2020), and assess the value of understanding people’s engagement with peatlands and the reasons behind “caring for Cinderella” (Byg et al., 2020). In addition to these, and of central relevance to this year’s main news story, Harrison et al. (2020) published an article describing the role that tropical peatlands play in the context of global disease pandemics.

Covid-19 has touched us all, including the communities living in the World’s peatlands. Working with an international team of co-authors (including us both), Harrison et al. (2020), make apposite connections between the current Covid-19 pandemic and tropical peatlands drawing attention to the consequences of neglecting this globally important ecosystem in these challenging times. We describe how tropical peatlands could prove a potential source of zoonotic emerging infectious diseases in the future, with wildlife harvesting and habitat degradation bringing people into contact with potential animal vectors. Of more immediate effect, we describe the likely/ensuing impacts that the Covid-19 pandemic is already having on communities living in and around tropical peatlands. Food security, health provisioning and livelihoods have been compromised by the interruptions to transport resulting from the pandemic within the peatlands of Borneo and the Peruvian Amazon. Peatland research, restoration and conservation have also all been disrupted, increasing the susceptibility of already degraded peatland areas to fire and illegal activities. On a positive note, the article concludes by providing specific recommendations on how tropical peatlands can be managed to mitigate the risks of this pandemic and potential future ones. Hopefully these recommendations will be heeded.

Buenos Aires, Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, Peruvian Amazon
Urarina indigenous groups

Many tropical peatland areas are vulnerable to the impacts, whether directly or indirectly, of Covid-19 (Harrison et al., 2020). A remote tropical peatland community in Buenos Aires (upper image), within the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, Peruvian Amazon, which is accessible only by boat. People living here and in neighbouring communities rely heavily on resources extracted from the surrounding peat-forming Mauritia flexuosa palm swamps. Urarina indigenous groups living in peat-rich areas, harvest palm leaves from which to make textiles (lower image); important both practically and culturally for these isolated communities. The palms also offer plentiful food for wild fauna and thus the palm swamps in which they grow are important hunting spaces for people, providing bushmeat in locations far from the nearest market. Photo credits: Lydia Cole.

Finally, the UK Government has been put under further pressure recently to ban peat compost for amateur gardeners. The UK aimed to phase out peat compost for home use in England this year, but the target was only voluntary, meaning political will is limited and enforcement non-existent. Campaigns drawing attention to this Government failing are helping to ensure it does not go unnoticed.

Despite these ‘wins’ for peatlands in 2020, there remain many challenges to protecting these invaluable ecosystems sufficiently from degrading human activities (for example in the Congo basin and Indonesian Borneo). Continuing to bring peatlands into public view and onto national and international policy agendas is vital, and one that the International Peatland Society is committed to as we dive into 2021.  

Dr. Lydia Cole, Coordinator IPS Biodiversity Expert Group
University of St. Andrews

Dr. Mark E. Harrison
University Of Exeter, Cornwall

Showcasing my research, on the bog

On 26th November 2020, I had some fun getting stuck into the Scottish Research Showcase. It involved creating a short video that represented an aspect of my work. So I created the (rather naff!) introduction to peatlands that’s embedded in the tweet below. There were some fantastically creative videos made by other Scotland-based researchers, so I’d recommend browsing #Exploration20 #GlobalScienceShow tweets from the day (e.g. one researcher tells their story via an animation in the form of crochet!). I have much to learn about, and from, the boundless and fun world of science communication!

The other two tweets in my offering were:

IS IT REALLY RENEWABLE, FOR PEAT’S SAKE?

I’m re-posting this blog with permission from the University of St Andrews’ Energy Ethics group, for whom I wrote this piece.

As part of Energy Ethics 2020, I joined three other panellists on Friday 13th November to debate the question: Are renewable energy technologies a sustainable solution for meeting the world’s growing energy needs? It was a fascinating 90 minutes, filled with interesting and shocking facts about the dimensions of renewable energy in the 21st Century. I learnt that if we wanted to rely on biofuels, we would have to plant crops on the whole of the world’s terrestrial surface in order to replace the 15 Empire State Buildings’ worth of crude oil that is currently extracted per day; that an average electric car uses three times more copper than a conventional car (where does this come from!?); and that many people in the Majority World lack access to sufficient energy to light up their homes for educational purposes or to cook without subjecting the household to air pollution, let alone have access to renewable energy sources. The challenges of powering the world on renewable technologies were as palpable as the need to overcome them in order to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels; and reducing this reliance is imperative if we are to limit the impacts of ongoing climate change.

I am an ecologist, who has studied landscapes in which bio-energy production has been one option for land use. Since energy use and sourcing is a topic that touches all of our lives, I have spent some time thinking about how we might produce renewable energy whilst ensuring we uphold the environmental pillar of sustainable practice. I remember being excited by palm oil, touted as the great solution to diesel-fuelled transport. After millions of hectares of Southeast Asia were converted into oil palm plantations, the critiques started to roll in: we are taking up precious agricultural land to fill our cars with biofuels whilst people starve; we are destroying miles upon miles of biodiverse tropical forest to plant a monoculture that provides limited habitat for wildlife; we are creating huge carbon emissions in the process of growing this ‘renewable’ fuel, amongst other condemnations. I remember getting excited about Jatropha, claimed to be a more renewable alternative, as a biomass crop that could be grown in areas that were already ecologically degraded. But Jatropha did not prove the golden ticket either: the crop requires significant inputs of fertilisers, pesticides and water (through irrigation systems) in order to be productive, and the process of converting Jatropha seed oil into biodiesel results in large greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions itself. There are large questions around the sustainability of these two biofuels (and many others). There is also enquiry to be made around whether they are actually truly ’renewable’.

A commercial plantation in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, where the oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, is grown to produce palm oil. [Photo credit: Lydia Cole]

According to Oxford’s online Lexico, a renewable resource is defined as one that is “not depleted by use”. The resource therefore has to regenerate at the same rate that it is harvested or otherwise consumed. For example, sufficient time must be left between the logging rotations in a tree plantation to ensure that the trees grow to reproductive age before they are harvested. If trees are harvested too early in their growth cycle for natural regeneration to take place, a key dimension of the renewability of the resource is undermined, along with the interdependent system in which it grows: the soil, with its finite stock of nutrients and growing material; the water supply to ecosystem; and the diversity of plants and animals involved in nutrient cycling and natural regeneration. If the context and condition of the whole ecosystem is considered, as the fundamental housing from which renewable resources are produced, many of our current ‘renewable’ resources would be axed from the list.

An area of deforested peatland in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, in the process of being converted into an oil palm plantation. [Photo credit: Lydia Cole]

One resource that epitomises this renewability challenge is peat. Peat accumulates at an average rate of one millimetre per year, in waterlogged environments where the lack of oxygen slows down or entirely halts the process of decomposition. Burning one cubic meter of extracted peat is the equivalent to releasing one thousand years of accumulated carbon. It is produced through the natural process of harnessing the sun’s energy via photosynthesis, the same process as produces wood-fuel, but the slow regeneration time of peat demands that if we burn it, we must do so at an impractically slow rate.

Aside from the extensive time required to re-accumulate the equivalent carbon belowground that is extracted when peat is harvested, the process of extraction itself often leads to large carbon emissions. The equipment deployed uses fossil fuelled combustion engines and emits CO2, but even greater volumes of GHGs result from the disruption of the waterlogged environment, which is an inevitable part of the extraction process. This prevents the ongoing ‘sinking’ of CO2 from the atmosphere into the peat substrate. It also results in the release of carbon that was previously inaccessible to the forces of decomposition, which cycles the plant-derived organic carbon back into the atmospheric gas that we have come to dread. Rwanda, a country striving for domestic energy security and energy accessibility for all, has recently built a peat-fired power station. International financing and engineering assistance, primarily from Finland, has supported the development of this “sustainable electricity” infrastructure. But this strategy of burning peat for electricity generation is far from sustainable, and even further from a system harnessing a renewable resource, as I have touched on here.

Rwanda’s first peat-fired power plant at Gishoma. [Photo credit: Rwanda Energy Group/Twitter]

Though the balancing of the three pillars of environment, society and economics to develop sustainable solutions to meet our energy needs is no trivial task, a sufficient understanding and consideration of the environment component is essential if the other two pillars are not to be undermined. But when has any big transition occurred without challenge? And it is challenge that drives innovation and positive change. To end the discussion, the panellists were asked for their final (ideally positive!) reflections in order to provide food for thought moving forward. Building decentralised, appropriate renewable energy systems at a community level was mentioned by several of us. One panellist emphasised the need to create macro-policies with micro-foundations. He also reflected on the need for a dimension of international cooperation and support, through knowledge transfer and financial assistance, to lend the opportunities of renewable energy to those countries less able to develop their own. Promisingly, finding the money for these initiatives now seems more possible than ever, with recent COVID-19 related budget decisions demonstrating to the population here in the UK that our national Government can deliver when it chooses to. There was further optimism in the recent election of a new leader in the United States of America, Joe Biden, who has both acknowledged the reality of climate change and will likely choose to provide national and international leadership on approaches to solve this challenge. But we were reminded, as conscious citizens, that we must hold our leaders to account and show them that we are willing to embrace equitable and truly sustainable solutions to one of the greatest challenges of our age.

Tools of the interdisciplinary trade – the write-up!

#WorldPeatlandsDay, the First

Re-posting here a quick plug I made for World Peatlands Day on the Tropical Wetlands Consortium blog.  Any excuse to post about peat.

Tuesday 2nd June, 2020, marked the first ever World Peatlands Day – a celebration of all things boggy, swampy, sucky, blanket-y, fen-y, etc.  The International Peatland Society launched the event in August 2019, to draw attention to peatlands as being a unique ecosystem type, with a unique set of values and challenges associated with their sustainable management, and thus deserving of a separate international day of recognition.  The longer-established World Wetlands Day happens on 2nd February every year, bringing the vast range of wetlands into the public eye; ecosystems that we all interact with and rely on in some way.  Peatlands are one major part of that story.

In celebration of the day, re-peat put on Peat-Fest, a very impressive 24 hours of online peat-related fun.  The British Ecological Society’s Peatlands Research and Conservation Ecology Groups co-hosted a peat- and conservation-themed quiz (part-organised and attended by members of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium).  Here are a few popular tweets illustrating yesterday’s celebration….

But if World Peatlands Day passed you by, don’t fear; there are plenty more days to celebrate peatlands to come*.  International BogDay is on Sunday 26th July, the World Bogsnorkelling Championships (now cancelled) are usually in mid-Wales (UK) on the August Bank Holiday weekend, and in July of 2021, the Swamp Soccer World Championships is to be held in Finland.  Do let us know if you spot more opportunities to celebrate these important ecosystems, in the Global North, South or swamps.

Spot the difference!

On 7th March B.C., during those heady days of frollocking in the sun/rain-shine, wholesome hugs and re-usable coffee cups, the University of St Andrews held a Science Discovery Day.  I was unable to attend unfortunately, but put together a poster for my research group – the Tropical Wetlands Consortium  – to pop up as part of their peat paraphernalia.  Below are two copies of the poster: (a) the poster before our seven year old consultant checked it for readability by the society members he was representing; (b) the revised version, edited in response to his valuable feedback.  There are four major differences.  Can you spot them (click on images to enlarge)?  And understand why the items in (a) weren’t accessible to our next generation of budding scientists?  The feedback was eye-opening for me, and I shall now be using this consultant regularly to accessibility-check my primary school-level outreach work.

(a) Pre-accessibility assessment

(b) Post-check by our seven year old consultant

Making an impact….in UK environmental policy

On 6th March B.C. (just before lock-down), I organised an event at the snazzy, “gold-standard of sustainability” British Ecological Society Offices in London, to let ecologists know how they can Make an Impact: Understanding the ways they can engage with the UK Parliament and Policy.  The event was held jointly by the Conservation Ecology Special Interest Group and the BES Policy Team.  We had an excellent bunch of speakers and a room-full of engaged attendees.

I thought I’d post some of the resources from the day here:

Now over to you/me/us.  And perhaps now is the time to think about what changes are possible, what a different world could look like A.C. and how we can influence that.

Fare forward, women.

I’ve just been included in this article, written to celebrate International Women’s Day: Ten BES women you should know about. Probably a networking-related turn of events that meant I was on the author’s mind, but I thank her very much for including me. “They” always says this…but it really is an honour to be on this list with those other babes. I will endeavour to keep putting my energy into things that I believe are important – engaging people in ecology and conservation, building the confidence and vision of individuals and nurturing kind communities.

And here’s a poem for these times that a hugely inspiring female friend sent me:

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Report from the latest gathering of the TPWGroup

UK Tropical Peatland Working Group

Here is a short report on the latest meeting of the UK TPWG, written by Lydia Cole.

On 30th January, Prof Sue Page and Dr Sara Thornton hosted a meeting of the UK Tropical Peatland Working Group (UK TPWG).  An assortment of researchers gathered for one day at the University of Leicester, to present their work and discuss how the group can be more effective in the realm of tropical peatland science and responsible management.  Attendees successfully navigated the UK rail network from as far as Exeter on the south coast to St Andrews on the east coast of Scotland.  The most junior member of the group had a baptism of fire as the meeting marked the first day of his PhD – well done, Abdul!

IMG-20200130-WA0005 Donna Hawthorne presenting on her palaeoecological component of the mega-CongoPeat project. (Credit: Lydia Cole.)

The day started with brief introductions from everyone present…

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A story of flaming bogs in Borneo

I’ve made a pact with myself that I will write a plain language summary for each paper I publish as the first author, to make my work more accessible for people beyond the ivory tower.  Some journals, e.g. People and Nature, now encourage this for each of their publications.  Whether you believe or not that scientists have a role in advocacy, I believe that sharing the treasure of knowledge with the people that funded our adventure is our responsibility.  And perhaps it’s better to tell the story with scientific facts, than ‘facts’ derived through alternative means?  Here is my first attempt at an accessible summary for my last publication. (Though it’s still too sciency, a good friend pointed out – I’ll try for properly plain next time!  All comments welcome!)

Over the past year, it’s been rare to pass a day without hearing of forests burning, whether in Australia, Brazil or Siberia.  The frequency and intensity of forest fires seem to be increasing, with devastating impacts on people and nature.  But fires in forests are not a new phenomenon and can be vital to the resilience of these ecosystems.  Historical and palaeoecological work can provide context from which to compare these contemporary fires and provide evidence to demonstrate the impact of management and policy.

One type of forest that has gained a global reputation in recent decades for its spectacular fires is degraded tropical peat swamp forest.  In an intact state, these waterlogged ecosystems accumulate carbon under their prevailing anaerobic conditions, making them hugely important for mitigating the effects of rising GHG emissions.  But are fires unique to degraded tropical peatlands or do intact peatlands burn too?

Our recent paper* answered this question for three peatland sites along the coast of northern Borneo, within the Malaysian state of Sarawak.  We collected a set of peat cores from each site and spent many hours in front of the microscope gathering data on elements of the landscape over the last 7,000 years.  Fossil pollen grains were identified to provide knowledge on the floral components of the landscape over time and distinguish major ecosystem types.  Fossil charcoal particles were counted to reconstruct past fire regimes in these swamps, including incidences of forest burning that were above the background levels.  We also looked at a wide range of historical and contemporary literature to explore the interactions that people have had with these peatlands over the last 500 years: the approximate time of people’s arrival in the flooded coastal forests, the changes in land titling and the political pressures on land management in recent millennia.

Our results demonstrate that intact tropical peatlands do burn.  They probably burnt more in years when the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) – a climatic phenomenon that brings drier, warmer weather to this region in irregular, sub-decadal intervals – was stronger, but the peat swamp forest seemed to recover even from these more intense fires.  However, cue people’s entry into the story, c. 1850s, and the narrative changes.  Fossil charcoal levels reach unprecedented levels, in parallel with indicators of deforestation.  And the peat swamp forest shows signs of losing its long-standing stability – the ecosystem’s resilience appears to be compromised by the simultaneous forces of fire and deforestation.

Many of the forests standing in the Anthropocene have been degraded.  Their resilience has been compromised by unusually low precipitation (resulting from regional climatic drying) or by management interventions that disrupt natural disturbance regimes, or by both, pushing them beyond the limits of their ecological memory.  Our work suggests that tropical peatlands have recovered from episodes of burning throughout the Holocene.  But the presence of people, agriculture and fire in peatlands seems to be a recipe for disaster.  There is no shortage of contemporary literature and news reports supporting the notion that a drained peatland burns.  Our work contributes to the common narrative that for climate change mitigation and for the universal long-term benefit of people and nature, drainage and deforestation are not compatible with sustainable management of tropical peatlands.

 

*Cole, L.E.S., Bhagwat, S.A., and Willis, K.J. (2019) Fire in the Swamp Forest: Palaeoecological Insights Into Natural and Human-Induced Burning in Intact Tropical Peatlands. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change. https://doi.org/10.3389/ffgc.2019.00048