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:
- The presentations from the Speakers
- A brief blog of the day by our great Deputy Chair, Kasia Mikołajczak
- And our new resource – the Conservation Policy page – providing news and links to more info on UK environmental policy, including how you can get involved
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.
A few weeks back, I attended the Joint BESTEG/gtö Symposium in one of the most beautiful cities of the British Isles (now just down the road from me) with a rich history of scientific endeavour. The British Ecological Society tends to put on a good show from my experience, and this met expectations. The Symposium was entitled “Unifying Tropical Ecology: Strengthening Collaborative Science”; the pertinence of which was emphasised in the Welcome Address by Pierre-Michel Forget, the Society of Tropical Ecology’s (gtö) President, as we head towards a potential division within European scientific institutions that will likely impact on all nations of Europe and beyond, unless we work hard to keep connections alive.
There were many excellent talks, and I listened to some fascinating presentations about things I wasn’t even aware were a thing beforehand. I thought I’d give a quick low-down on some of my top tales from the meeting (mostly so I’ve got them recorded somewhere other than in my fraying notebook).
1. Open ecosystems need the Attenborough-effect, and fast
As Professor William Bond passionately described, these are ecosystems that naturally contain areas of non-woody vegetation. I’m sure I’ve not given his definition justice, but basically, the natural disturbance regime, coupled with climate and soil type, create an environment where trees are not the dominant vegetation type. I was fascinated to hear William describe fire as a biological agent in these landscapes; as the “life-blood” of most of the World’s open ecosystems. Yet, because of our preponderance for forest, and our perception that forest would dominate most ecosystems (within certain biophysical boundaries) if us humans hadn’t tampered with them, we are biased against seeing different landscape configurations, i.e. these precious open ecosystems. We’re not “seeing” them and understanding the ‘nature’ of these open systems because we consider them to be a result of our destructive behaviour, rather than natural. An example of this is the very recently ‘discovered’ and designated biodiversity hotspot in the USA: the North America Coastal Plain. As explained in this article: “several myths and misconceptions prevented ecologists and conservationists from recognizing the biological importance of the NACP until now”, its uniqueness and stability, absent of anthropogenic impact. One consequence of us not appreciating the uniqueness and importance of these ecosystems, is that we are all too ready to turn them into forests, encouraged by well-meaning, but somewhat naïve international initiatives such as The Bonn Challenge: “a global effort to bring 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2020, and 350 million hectares by 2030”. I think it’s a challenge in itself for any international initiative to avoid being naïve when it attempts to roll-out a one-size-fits-all across the globe; often in reality, one-size-fits-none (a common problem encountered with free t-shirts). Through the impetus of the Bonn Challenge, with careful planning, millions of hectares of recently deforested land could be replanted, i.e. reforestation. (Though see Wheeler et al.’s recent Comment pondering some of the specific challenges of the Challenge, including where all of this magical land for reforestation might be!) Afforestation – [converting] (land) into forest, especially for commercial exploitation – is a different matter altogether and requires a lot more consideration and perhaps guidance through policy, to ensure open ecosystems are not sacrificed in the process (and indeed, peatlands). Hmm….
2. Termites are really quite awesome
Yes, I’m late to the game on this one. Professor Kate Parr, through a rather annoying (at the time) and unpredicted environmental disaster, found out some fascinating new facts about these amazing creatures. A drought revealed to her and her crew that termites are more important than we previously realised in facilitating recovery in drought-disturbed forests, significantly increasing the resilience of the vegetation. This recent paper from her group gives much more background, and justice to the important role of termites than my few sentences. Kate ended her talk by cautioning that termites don’t seem to be able to survive in forests impacted by recurrent fire, or fire and drought, or the other forms of ‘unnatural’ disturbance common to the Anthropocene.
3. Unlike many humans, trees are taking action to respond to climate change
Emma Bush gave an excellent presentation explaining the data she has collecting that shows a reduction in leaf senescence as atmospheric CO2 levels rise, i.e. trees are holding onto their leaves for longer. Again, there’s way more of this story to tell (and I think Emma has a few outstanding research questions she’s wanting to answer), so keep an eye out for publications from this budding expert.
4. And a few more of the cool things I learnt:
- Trees don’t get on well without neighbours, as demonstrated by Isabel Jones, showing results of reduced regeneration of trees on islands created by the construction of mega-dams; more info here. I wondered what impact these dams were also having on the fauna of the now-fragmented landscape and consequently on seed dispersal for the trees, e.g. are they creating “silent forests”? But I sadly couldn’t find her at coffee to ask! Neat work.
- Talking of seed dispersal, Professor Kim McConkey, gave a really interesting plenary on the role of megafauna in seed and fruit evolution in the Tropics, and indeed the mysteries that still remain on that front. An impressive piece of detective work, involving many people over many years, as told in part here.
- Various presentations made me realise that the impact of drought on the vegetation of the forested Tropics is complex (yes, late to the game there too!). Different environmental and interacting factors make for a wide array of (sometimes unpredictable) responses of vegetation to the disturbance of drought. And ‘drought’ itself is a different beast in different ecosystems: one man’s drought is another man’s shower….or something like that.
- You can learn all sorts of things when you start a new project, or when an old project gets a bit fruity, with many outcomes being far from any hypotheses you might have scribbled down (sometimes post-hoc!)….if you keep your eyes and mind open!
- Having an early morning jog, around a beautiful city, with a bunch of other hungover ecologists, is a very great idea.
Thanks to the BES, and everyone else who joined in the fun.
Back in February, the British Ecological Society’s Special Interest Group in Conservation Ecology (which I’m enjoying Chairing) ran a thoroughly interesting event in London on what Brexit might mean to/for early career ecologists. It was a sell-out, despite concerns of Brexit-fatigue. And I was so impressed by the level of engagement of those that attended. It was expertly organised by Dr Andy Suggitt, whom wrote a great piece on the event here. Kate Howlett has also written this and this piece on the day, which provide another interesting perspective on the event and learnings from it.
One of the key learnings I took away from the event was concerning the one (ONE) positive outcome that could (COULD) result from Brexit: the ability for the UK to manage their agricultural landscapes independently from the top-down regulation currently dictated by the Common Agricultural Policy. Leaving the EU would mean we could reform the policies which dictate how we manage the countryside, mostly those rules and structures which presently determine to what degree we degrade our rural environments in the different corners of our green and pleasant island. “Common” is perhaps a warning sign for any environmental policy, which requires the particularities of the “local” to be central in decision-making if a policy is to stand any chance of being “sustainable”. But that was never the central aim of the CAP. Perhaps, if someone does finally make a decision on which direction the UK will go in (before it self-implodes) we can create a nature-focused LAP: a Local Agricultural Policy, which considers the lay of the land, the local livelihoods, and the living biodiversity, above- and below-ground (e.g. our down-trodden worms).
But we only could leave the EU. And we only could have the bravery and sense in Leadership to listen to the evidence for how to responsibly, perhaps even sustainably manage our countryside and the resources within it. And if we don’t leave the EU, we could try to reform things from within; building on the important research (e.g.) that is already being done in the UK and Europe on what sustainable agriculture might look like. We need to hook those scientists up with the policy makers and shapers. And wouldn’t that be great – to have a leading influence across Europe. The worms would be proud.
I learnt a new word this week: turberas. In about three weeks’ time, I’ll be off to Peru’s turberas. In case you hadn’t guessed, turberas = peat. My new gig is on a project entitled Valuing Intact Tropical Peatlands. I’ll be heading out to Iquitos, a city (inaccessible by road – for better or for worse) within the Peruvian Amazon, which will be the base from where a crew of us researchers will be heading into the swamp forests this side of the Andes.
There are still a fair few questions to answer on the exact details of the research and the associated fieldwork that we will be doing, but we made huge head-way this week at our first project meeting. We were fortunate to have four of our Peru-based colleagues join us (all from the Instituto de Investigaciones Amazonía Peruana) for three and a half days of intense discussions. And my, it was frazzling. (I have a new-found respect for the MPs of the UK Parliament after two+ years of what have effectively been intense interdisciplinary discussions.) This project is the first truly interdisciplinary one I’ve been a part of, i.e. much more than just lip-service is being given to the notion of working together, across disciplines, to answer some multifaceted questions. I’m re-learning the importance of patience, open-mindedness, clarity, humility and perspective: all immensely valuable skills for any project, and any well-lived life.
I will write more about the project as the days fly by, but at this point, one of the persisting aspects of it (whilst others seem to come and go with the wind!) is that we’re interested in finding out how and why people are interacting with their environment, notably the boggy bits of it. For me, it’s such an exciting project, and certainly as interesting as it is challenging. And it’s such a privilege to work with a team of passionate Peruvians, and an engaged UK-based crew, spanning the social and natural sciences.
Watch this space for more reflections on working interdisciplinarily (a word? – probably in the social sciences), and for news on how I fare in a real-life intact peat swamp. A rare and wonderful space these days.
10 years on from the MSc in Biodiversity Conservation and Management
Laura Chartier presents (left) and the BCM class of 2007-08 pose for a group photo with current students (right).
Ten years later, where has a multidisciplinary MSc from Oxford led us? On Friday 8 June, the 2007-08 cohort of the MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management gathered in Oxford to find out. Celebrating their 10 year reunion, fifteen of the ’08 graduates summarised the last “10 years in 10 minutes” in a day of discussions on “Early career trajectories in biodiversity, conservation and management”. It was fascinating! And we certainly learnt more about everyone’s paths than we would had we gone with the initial plan of spending the day crawling between our beloved haunts of a decade ago, i.e. ye olde pubs of Oxford.
The presentations followed a common format, summarising initial career goals, actual career paths, key skills obtained ‘on-the-job’, skills and knowledge we gained from BCM that have been particularly useful, and what advice we would give this cohort of students. Each presentation provided valuable insights into the development of our careers after the Masters course, with often candid revelations about the uncertain, far from “straight paths” of career development. Some alumni succeeded in several, quite unrelated careers; changing course when they realised their soul was being sapped and their grey hairs were increasing exponentially.
Despite the diversity of trajectories, surprisingly consistent messages emerged from the presentations. One such key message was the importance of passion for whatever you are doing, and of stepping away if the passion isn’t there. This is not always easy when it means living back with your parents (as quite a few of us have done), sacrificing work that you’ve invested a large amount of time in, or even foregoing rapid career advancement prospects. But remaining humble throughout and believing in yourself and the important contribution you can and will make were other universal reflections. Networking and relationship-building were discussed at length, and the ways these can be accomplished as an early-career individual, without feeling phony! And importantly, gender issues and the challenges some of the women of the group have experienced warranted discussion and reflection. One thing we all agreed on was that conservation is more than a career choice: it is a mind set that can be taken into any career and shape life choices at every stage.
We’d like to thank Christine Baro-Hone and Paul Jepson for helping with the event organisation, and the current BCM students who attended and provided stimulating questions and feedback. Another point of consensus from our cohort was the rich experience BCM gave us and how privileged we were to have had a year with our inspiring classmates, lecturers and community in and around Oxford’s many spires.
Long live BCM!
Lydia Cole, Rowan Trebilco, Anne Christianson and Laura Chartier (BCM 2007-08)
This blog post forms part one of two pieces I wrote for the Condatis News Blog, describing my recent trip to Southeast Asia as part of my role (Knowledge Exchange Assistant and Landscape Analyst) at the University of Liverpool, working under Dr. Jenny Hodgson. We spent three weeks in Malaysia and Indonesia, as a component of the 11 month NERC-funded Innovation Follow-on project: Decision support for restoring ecological networks in rapidly developing, biodiverse countries.
Whilst everyone was sweltering under abnormally tropical temperatures in the UK during July, Jenny and I were enjoying a relatively temperate time in the Tropics. We spent the majority of the month in Malaysia and Indonesia, visiting the partners and landscapes that are involved in our NERC-funded project: Decision support for restoring ecological networks in rapidly developing, biodiverse countries. Ghana is the other country involved in the project, which we had the privilege to visit back in April (reported on here). This time, road trip around Southeast Asia!
Our travels started with a stop-off in Kuching, Sarawak, to attend the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation’s (ATBC) annual meeting, entitled Linking Natural History and the Conservation of Tomorrow’s Tropical Ecosystems. It was a fascinating five days, attended by a huge range of nationalities talking on a similarly wide variety of topics. Jenny presented on Condatis and I on the long-term ecology of tropical peatlands (another passion). Many of our collaborators were also there presenting, including: Professor Jane Hill and Dr Sarah Scriven from the University of York, and Dr Jed Brodie and Dr Sara Williams from the University of Montana. And we made some useful contacts for the Condatis project, as my new collection of business cards testifies.
Just hours after the closing ceremony of the conference had finished (and the after party was likely still in full swing!), we flew on to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, to attend a catch-up meeting for the Sabah-based project we are involved in. The meeting was organised by the Southeast Asian Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP), the charity that is coordinating this multi-stakeholder project. The other partners involved in this mapping project include the Universities of York, Aberdeen and Montana, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, the Carnegie Airborne Observatory and the PACOS Trust (an inspiring charity supporting indigenous communities in Sabah). We discussed the first set of outputs the group had developed for the project; generated using biodiversity and soils data, satellite imagery and modelling, including various layers derived through Condatis that have been incorporated into the prioritisation process. The next stage of the project will involve the PACOS Trust consulting with indigenous, forest-based communities on which of the areas highlighted through our ecological analysis, are appropriate for enhanced protection.
In order for us ecologists to understand the human-component of these forested landscapes, we were extremely fortunate to be invited to visit several different communities with PACOS. So the next morning, five of us, equipped with walking boots and mosquito nets, headed upstream, into the Heart of Borneo.
We spent three nights in the “cultural house” of Kampung Sikalabaan, along with a dozen other men and boys who were visiting in order to attend training on how to fix boat motors, organised by PACOS. These communities rely on mechanised boats to travel between villages, to school, to obtain provisions and to generate an income; with replacement parts for engines being so expensive, it is important that people know how to fix them. PACOS offers training courses for members of indigenous communities across Sabah, on subjects ranging from how to plant chilli peppers, fix broken machinery, to how to make soap, with the aim of improving their capacity to sustain a low-impact livelihood in the often remote locations they occupy.
We spent one incredible day observing how members of Kampung Sikalabaan use their forest and its plethora of resources. Members of seven families led us patiently (we were significantly slower and less agile than them, despite the laden woven backpacks they were carrying!) through the jungle to their farms, laid out in forest clearings. Along the way, they stopped occasionally to harvest wild ginger or check on a small vegetable plot they’d established, apparently opportunistically, within their community land. Early afternoon, after walking upstream/in-stream for quite some time, we stopped for a spectacular picnic: out of their woven baskets, the women produced a feast for the twenty or so of us, with freshly boiled rice, freshly picked aubergine broth and then to top it off, they caught and we cooked freshly-netted fish from the flowing waters two feet away. Beats a Sainsbury’s sandwich.
It was a privilege to see how this community so expertly uses their land, and how important it is for them to have access to the forest and its resources. With rural-urban migration and the designation of ‘communal lands’ providing opportunities for the expansion of oil palm into these areas, as well as pressures on resources and disturbance to ecosystems from logging, industrial agriculture and mining, these community-owned lands are being compromised. The Government’s goal of expanding strictly protected areas across more of its forested asset adds another dimension to the challenge of maintaining indigenous communities in these landscapes. But more discussion on this complex issue will have to wait for a future blog! We thank PACOS and SEARRP (Gordon, Angie and Agnes in particular) for organising this insightful opportunity.
Leaving the forest and returning to Kota Kinabalu was a bit of a shock, though the washing machine was welcomed! The next day we headed into the Forestry Complex at the Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) campus for two days of training. We had 20 participants attend from a range of backgrounds: in addition to UMS students and lecturers, people attended from the Departments of Agriculture, Irrigation and Drainage (JPS), Forestry (SFD) and Environment Protection (JPAS), from WWF-Malaysia and SEARRP. The first day was led by Dr Sarah Scriven and introduced participants to the R program and how to perform basic analysis and geospatial data processing. The second day, led by myself and Jenny, introduced the concept of Condatis, followed by an interactive session where we guided people through performing their own analyses using the new web version of the tool. (Butterflies (rama-rama in Malay) were used as the study organism; Jenny’s favourite!) Though we were a little optimistic as to how much material we wanted to cover in two days, it seemed to be a success: our participants provided positive and useful feedback that we used to improve and refine our training workshop the following week in Indonesia.
With our fascinating range of meetings and field trips complete in Malaysia, we headed for the next stop-off: the island of Java.
For the second episode in our Southeast Asian adventure, click here or check out the next post.
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.
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.
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 @
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:
- Press and online media profile building
- Networking and CV development for non-academic careers
- Interview skills for academic careers
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 toNathalie.Pettorelli@ioz.ac.uk
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 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:
- A 200m* deep peat deposit in Greece (which I think is in the Drama Plain), and
- The 65m* deep Lynch’s Crater in Australia.
*Numbers not verified – may have passed through multiple Chinese whispers.
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.