Beyond the Haze

Today, a short piece I wrote with several other C-PEAT-land scientists was published on the Journal of Applied Ecology blog.  Last October, whilst we were excitedly sharing our tales of new peatland findings at the inaugural workshop in New York, our beloved ecosystems were going up in smoke on the other side of the world.  Thousands of years of environmental history have burnt away over the last nine months in Southeast Asia, thanks to the natural phenomenon of El Niño.  It’s ofcourse absolutely nothing to do with our extensive draining of peatlands, subsequent compaction and complete conversion into oil palm and acacia plantations.  (There’s a blog post and paper to come on this.)

I’ve pasted our concerned correspondence below.

Beyond the Haze: Implications of the recent fires in Indonesia for tropical peatland research

This post was written by members of C-PEAT (Lydia Cole, Ian Lawson, Dave Beilman, Dan Charman and Zicheng Yu) to voice the group’s concern over the consequences of the recent extensive burning of Indonesia’s peatlands for science. C-PEAT (Carbon in Peat on Earth through Time) is a thematic group of PAGES (Past Global Changes), and had its inaugural meeting at Columbia University in New York, in October 2015.

Many reports and commentaries concerning the recent fires in Indonesia, including here, have been published over the last twelve months.  El Niño conditions, bringing drier weather to this part of Southeast Asia, in combination with extensive draining of peatlands, resulted in a tinder box that started burning in mid-August of 2015 and continued even as the world’s nations gathered at COP21 in Paris to discuss tools for sustainable forest management.

The consequences of these fires for society, the economy and the environment are still being quantified.  The areal extent of last year’s burning across Indonesia has been estimated to exceed 2.6 M ha (World Bank), with up to 90% of the subsequent haze resulting from peatland fires.  Peat volume losses over such a large area are likely to represent, by analogy with the 1997 fires (Page et al., 2002), a globally-significant loss of stored carbon.

While we share the widespread dismay at these social, economic and environmental consequences, we wish also to point out the loss to science represented by the apparently relentless destruction of Indonesia’s peatlands, a topic which was discussed at the inaugural PAGES Carbon in Peat on Earth through Time (C-PEAT) meeting last October.

Peatlands, which store atmospheric carbon as partially decomposed organic matter, provide a rich diversity of palaeo-proxies that can be used to measure the effect of past climatic change and human activity on ecosystems.  Akin to the loss of climate histories from disappearing glaciers worldwide (Savage, 2015), our library of environmental history in Indonesia is going up in smoke.  The importance of understanding the past will only increase as we enter historically unprecedented climatic regimes and environmental states, for which the prehistoric palaeoenvironmental record is a key resource for insights and analogies.


Page, S.E., Siegert, F., Rieley, J.O., Boehm, H-D.V., Jaya, A. & S. Limin. (2002) The amount of carbon released from peat and forest fires in Indonesia during 1997. Nature 420, 61-65.

Savage, N. (2015) Glaciology: Climatology on thin ice. Nature 520, 395-397.

Fledging the nest: an early career event for the next generation of Conservation Ecologists

A month ago, on Friday 4th March, I was involved in a workshop for young (as in PhD and postdoc ‘young’) ecologists that aimed to give them the tools they need to nail a career in Conservation Ecology.  With limited funds in conservation (which by no means reflects the funds required by the crisis discipline, as Waldron and his buddies write about here), but an urgent need to get bright, enthusiastic young things to take the reigns, we thought this was an apt event with which to kick-start the revived British Ecology Society Conservation Ecology Special Interest Group (BES ConEco SIG – not much more digestible as an acronym!).  The SIG’s revival is thanks to the hard work, enthusiasm and novel ideas of the unstoppable Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, based at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).  It’s quite an honour to be part of the Committee, and I’m excited by what the future holds for the group and its jolly followers.

My main role during last month’s event was to gather material for some blog posts, to provide post-event information for those that couldn’t attend (it was a sell out!).  Pasted below is the first post I wrote: Blog 1 of a six part series.  I also wrote Blog 4.  The others were written by Claudia, Heather and Kath, and posted on the ZSL Wild Science blog, BES blog and Journal of Applied Ecology’s The Applied Ecologist’s Blog.  Hopefully there are a few bits and bobs of advice that might be useful within.


Fledging the nest: an early career event for the next generation of Conservation Ecologists

This piece is written by Lydia Cole, Rezatec, BES Conservation Ecology SIG Liaison Officer@lydcole, Katherine Baldock, University of Bristol, BES Conservation Ecology SIG Early Career Rep @Kath_Baldock, Claudia Gray, Zoological Society of London, BES Conservation Ecology SIG Communications Officer @ClaudiaLGray, Heather Crump, Aberystwyth University, BES Conservation Ecology SIG Early Career Rep @hec72012

This blog has also been posted on the BES and ZSL Wild Science blogs.

event 1

Last Friday heralded the first training event of the revived BES Conservation Ecology Special Interest Group: an interactive workshop for Early Career Conservation Ecologists. Jointly hosted by the Zoological Society of London and the British Ecological Society, the event brought together a herd of experts, working in fields ranging from journal editing, to university lecturing and policy, to guide early career attendees through five interactive sessions.

The philosophy behind the day was to provide an active learning opportunity where the bright, enthusiastic cohort of PhDs and postdocs currently trying to enter the world of conservation could learn a range of skills that would better equip them for this challenge. And they flocked in their numbers, with over 65 gathering at the London Zoo, in view of the kangaroos, having travelled from as far afield as Falmouth to the south and Durham to the north.

Universities are busy places, full of busy supervisors, who do not always have the time to impart knowledge on how the world (of conservation) works and how best to get into it; this workshop attempted to bring that knowledge into one room and encourage the early career enthusiasts to tap into it.

The day was divided into five sessions, each an hour long, where participants spread themselves across five thematic groups:

  1. Funding
  2. Press and online media profile building
  3. Networking and CV development for non-academic careers
  4. Interview skills for academic careers
  5. Publishing

event 2

At each ‘station’ ( = a round table + experts x 2 + useful materials + Post-its (of course!)), attendees were asked to perform a series of tasks to engage them with the theme, ranging from seeing how many “useful” new contacts they could make in a quick-fire networking break-out, to matching abstracts to journals, drafting a BES small grant application and put together a communication strategy for a paper about to be published. In between tasks, there was plenty of time to mine the knowledge of the experts, who must have answered several thousand questions over the course of the day (thank you, experts!). And throughout, there was not a lecture in sight!

Informal feedback tells us it was a day well received:

To mark the event and share the knowledge gained from it, we will be running a series of blogs over the coming fortnight, with each post focusing one of the five workshop themes. So if you missed the event, check out the blogs….and watch out for the invitation to #conscareers17!

And remember: you can easily keep up-to-date with the Conservation Ecology SIG news by following us on Twitter @BESConservation and Facebook through the BES Conservation Ecology group page. Alternatively, you can join our mailing list by dropping an email

C-PEAT inauguration

Here is a brief report I wrote for the UK Tropical Peatland Working Group (TPWG) blog last week, on the recent C-PEAT meeting convened at Columbia University in New York, for which I was honoured to attend as an early career scientist.

About a month ago, from the 11th to 13th October, 52 scientists met at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York, to discuss peat.  The meeting was convened by Zicheng Yu from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, who was responsible for garnering support for this working group of PAGES.  The newly fledged C-PEAT, Carbon in Peat on EArth through Time, aims to bring together peat scientists from across the world and from a range of disciplines, to answer questions about how carbon in peatlands has changed throughout the past and how it might vary into the future.  I was fortunate enough to attend the meeting, along with Ian Lawson and various others that have or are still working with the UKTPWG, including Outi Lähteenoja.  Here is a brief report of the meeting.


The meeting crew, getting the C-PEAT ball rolling.

The main questions that led discussions during the workshop were:

  • Why is there peat?
  • How much and how fast can peats accumulate?
  • What will happen to peat in the future?

By the end of the three days, I think we were closer to knowing more clearly about what we don’t know, than to actually answering these questions!  But we exchanged a huge amount of new information in the process, some of which I’ve reported on below, under each question.

Why is there peat?

We spent one break-out session seeing if we could provide new insights into what the critical controls on peat formation might be.  After learning from the talks about the huge range of peatlands present today and during the past, from the diverse forested swamps of Papua New Guinea, to the high-altitude Andean ‘cushion’ peats, to the organic-rich sediments buried under glacial tills in Canada, all with their differing physical parameters, this proved challenging.  As did attempts at making generalisations about peat formation through time; time being hundreds of millions of years.  One scientist aptly commented that “coal is carbon; peat is water”, which helps to explain part of the picture!  There were a number of discussions about deep-time peats and coal, and whether we could make inferences on their development dynamics based on more recent peat formations.  A work in progress (by the Deep-time andBuried Peats Thematic Groups).

How much and how fast can peats accumulate?

What are the differences/similarities in peat accumulation rates along different temporal and spatial gradients?  Answers on a postcard please.  In a very interesting presentation, René Dommain, Smithsonian Institute, presented on tip-up pools in tropical peatland ecosystems and the importance of considering them when interpreting age-depth modelling and peat accumulation dynamics.  Rene’s fieldwork focused on the coastal peat domes of Brunei, but some other spectacular and more unexpected domes and craters were brought to everyone’s attention:

*Numbers not verified – may have passed through multiple Chinese whispers.


Breakfast chats (about peat?!) in the sunshine, at the Lamont-Doherty campus of Columbia University.

What will happen to peat in the future?

Where will new peat formations arise?  Where will peats disappear?  And where will they persist?

Will bogs persist with greater frequency than fens?  Nigel Roulet, McGill University, presented on the greater resilience of bogs compared to fens, with bogs maintaining hydrological independence from the surrounding environment and therefore being more able to resist the potential impacts of climate change.  Jeff Chanton, Florida State University, talked about the SPRUCE mega-project he’s involved with, in the Marcell Experimental Forest in Northern Minnesota, which is attempting to monitor how temperate peatlands respond to changes in climate.  Watch this space for the release of the experiment’s findings.

Ian Lawson, University of St. Andrews (and key member of the UKTPWG), presented on what we know about the tropical lowland peatlands of the Peruvian Amazon.  He also talked about the threats to their persistence, one of which was an unlikely suspect: aboveground carbon maps, which demonstrate the relatively lower standing carbon stocks in peatland areas compared to in terra firme forests, and fail to illustrate their rich belowground carbon store.  Ian highlighted the danger of these maps being used in land use decision-making in Peru, potentially erroneously directing forest conversion to these carbon rich areas.  And these peatlands don’t have the emotive conservation pin-up that their Southeast Asian relatives have.

Steve Frolking, University of New Hampshire, presented an analysis on carbon losses from tropical peatlands under different land use change scenarios into the next 50 years.  An interesting desk-based exercise that warns of the strong emissions legacy of the peatland management practices that are pervasive across much of Southeast Asia now.

One major area of peatland that we still know so little about was sadly not represented at the meeting: the peat swamps of Central Africa.  Perhaps that gap can be filled by members of this group at the next meeting.  There was also a distinct lack of anyone named Pete there.

As we move into the Anthropeatscene (!), we need to consider exactly what and where the threats to peatland persistence are.  And what the opportunities are for peatland conservation.  I’m sure everyone is aware of the fires that have been raging in Indonesian peatlands over the last few months (if not, look at this and this previous post), exacerbated to a great degree by unsustainable peatland management.  One big question the workshop considered was: what unique contribution can C-PEAT make as a group to peatland science and conservation, in both the tropical and temperate zone?

If you have the answer, or indeed any answers to the questions above….or are working on them, do join the C-PEAT mailing list by signing up here.

Summarising SEARRP

Another catchy acronym; another interesting symposium.  The Royal Society’s Southeast Asia Rainforest Research Programme held a two day meeting in London, quite a few weeks ago now, that managed to attach some of the top contemporary tropical forest scientists, as well as a bunch of my good friends!  All the great people work in SEA forest conservation, it seems.  (Conjecture only.)

Here are my five take-away points/unanswered questions from the meeting:

1. Should we rethink our current approach to conservation or try a bit harder doing what we’re already doing?

Good question, and probably the answer is it is depends on the situation.  I know I could certainly try a bit harder with both advocating for forest conservation and with figuring out a method for translating the words I’ve written on paper into something useful for those ‘on the ground’.

2. Native charismatic leaders are needed in the country where a conservation action is required.

This is a particular favourite of mine and one I hear people bring up frequently: change starts with respected, charismatic leaders.  I think I would be more likely to participate in the annual ragwort-pull in my New Forest village if the long-standing Doctor (come theatre director, actor and charmer) encouraged me to, than if someone popped by from Sevenoaks to give his/her opinion on what us villagers should do.  Not a great example, but we all take more notice when someone we know, trust and respect gives their opinion on something concerning us.

3. The risks associated with not doing anything about forest loss and biodiversity conservation are major.

….in case anyone was considering a change of profession – please hold off for a bit longer.  We need to know more about these risks so that we can prioritise our efforts and use the knowledge to incentivise behavioural change.

4. Should scientists be aiming to publish their work on the front page of Science or on the front page of the Daily Mail?

I would say both.  As to which is more important if only one is possible, again it probably depends on the situation.  But I think there should be an obligation for scientists to somehow find the time to translate their work into publicly-accessible pieces (with advocacy potential), and for politicians to put more emphasis on the use of policy-relevant research so that society becomes more tuned-in to evidence-based decision-making….and to all of the proven c**p that’s going on in the world today.

This point is along similar lines to something that came up at this year’s Earthwatch Debate, which focused on the controversial topic of rewilding in the UK.  As summarized for the twitter nation:

Need to take the #rewilding debate from London to the village halls where people will be dealing with the #beavers head on.

5. What potential does the plethora of new technologies have to deal with the old threats?

I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer this one, and again it probably depends.  There are hundreds of people who are better placed to give their opinion, one of which is the Captain of the Carnegie Plane of Dreams.  Professor Greg Asner, along with his hardworking, uber-intelligent minions, has developed technologies to map the chemistry of forest canopies, allowing for species-level identifications over vast areas.  I didn’t fall asleep once during his presentation.  And there are lots of other things going on out there, one of which I’m involved with.

6. Just remembered a 6th Roads: the bane of tropical forests, or are they?


A road that I wish wasn’t there.  It was constructed illegally (though it seems that’s disputed) into land owned by the Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve in Central Kalimantan, and not the plantation company that built it and has started to convert the area on the left into the bland oil palm plantations that this region is now accustomed to.

Fronting the “yes” campaign, Bill Laurance provided a convincing argument, showcasing his work on the impact of roads on the tropical forests across the world.  On the “No” side, the incredible Vojtech Novotny told a captivating story of the meaning of roads for the people of New Guinea.  His colleagues from the island were shocked to hear that people in the UK campaign to halt road building.  In a country where access to many places during much of the year is near impossible, and formal education and health care near absent, the thought of getting a road is equivalent to a lifetime of Christmases rolled into one (though the concept of Christmas is probably even more alien to them than roads).  In this richly forested nation, the argument for/against roads is nuanced and warrants consideration.

The answer to most of these questions seems to be that it mostly depends on the situation.  This isn’t just my indecision shining through; I think many tropical forest conservation projects have suffered in the past from the imposition of general rules on unique situations, as each project focus inevitably is.  General theories, principles and strategies are obviously necessary and useful, but there’s a whole load of specifics beyond these, which need to be gleaned from every forest and every community.