Happy World Wetlands Day!

Today is a day to celebrate and spread the word about our world’s wonderful wetlands.

Borrowed from the World Wetlands Day website. (Thank you!)

On this day 46 years ago, the Convention on Wetlands was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar.  Since then, the 2nd February has marked the signing of this Ramsar Convention: “an international treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources”.

Wetlands are increasingly acknowledged for their importance in controlling the quality and quantity of water flowing across landscapes, as reflected by the theme of this year’s World Wetlands Day: Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction.  They are also important for biodiversity conservation, for filtering pollutants from water supplies and of course our magnificent peatlands are critical for sequestering and storing atmospheric carbon (in their intact form).

Perhaps it’s time for a World Peatlands Day?

To celebrate the day and how peatland management has changed in the UK and Ireland over the last few generations, from predominantly extraction to conservation, here is a poem by Seamus Heaney:

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb   

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.




Under my window, a clean rasping sound   

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   

My father, digging. I look down




Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   

Bends low, comes up twenty years away   

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   

Where he was digging.




The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.




By God, the old man could handle a spade.   

Just like his old man.




My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.




The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.




Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.
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MICCA materials

One of MICCA’s publications from 2012.

The Mitigation of Climate Change in Agriculture (MICCA) programme of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), has a particularly special branch: the organic soils and peatlands climate change mitigation initiative.  “Launched by FAO, the MICCA Programme and Wetlands International, (it) is an informal network of organizations and people committed to reducing emissions from peatlands and safeguarding the other vital ecosystem services that peatlands provide.”  They have produced all sorts of reports, e.g. on sustainable peatland management, presentations from webinars, case studies and infographics, e.g. this decision support tree, for use by any interested communities.  Members of the initiative also have a keen presence at important gatherings of peatland scientists and practitioners, such as the IUCN UK Peatland Programme (near-)Annual Conference.  Given the challenges of being a small cog in the big UN-monster, the group seems to be doing its best to support sustainable peatland management across the world.

If you’d like to join MICCA’s peatland community, set up to facilitate the exchange of experience and knowledge amongst the wider population of peat lovers, sign up here.

And I think their latest infographic should be made into an elongated tea towel, to educate the everyday dryer-upper of the threats to peat.

My name is PEAT!

(Thank you, RSPB website.)

I stumbled/googled upon this a few days ago, and thought it was too good to go unreported.  Led by the rap artist, Ed Holden, a bunch of superstars from Pentrefoelas and Ysbyty Ifan Schools (had to copy and paste those names) have joined forces to show us all how important looking after our peatlands is.  It is half in Welsh.  And it is wholly inspired.

Of a slightly different tone,  The Importance of Scotland’s Peatlands also hit the big (YouTube) screen at the start of the month.  Another informative watch if you feel your knowledge of peat is wanting.

And whilst I’m posting about creative projects that can spread information and inspire interest for these precious ecosystems, here is the winner of the World Wetlands Day Poetry Prize: In My Other Life, by Virginia Creer.

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.

C-PEATColumbia.JPG

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.

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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.

#PeatAction14

Not of my making, promise!  This was one of the hashtags at the IUCN UK Peatland Programme Annual Conference I was lucky enough to attend last week in (surprisingly sunny) Inverness.  I had two days of being surrounded by peatland enthusiasts (and Scottish accents) – boggy heaven.

The aim of the conference was to spread news of success stories in peatland restoration and convey the state of play at present in UK and European peatland management (with a bit of burning news from the tropics provided by the hard-working OuTrop).

Here are a few of the main insights I came away with:

  • There is still no ban on peat extraction in the UK, or anywhere as far as I’m aware, but the Peat-Free Pledge is gaining momentum, putting pressure on the extractive industry and consumers (check out Dalefoot Composts for a peat-free alternative – I was thoroughly impressed by their front man and his win-win project!)
  • Corporations are becoming more interested in funding peatland restoration activities, and the Peatland Code is being developed to  encourage that, through making investment outcomes more measurable
  • There’s not a huge amount of faith in the new EU agri-environment schemes effectively enabling long-term peatland restoration and conservation, since they’re not really designed for that
  • We need more maps
  • We need more monitoring
  • We need more communication on what restoration techniques are working/failing in what locations, as each peatland is unique
  • The passion, time spent on & government support* behind sustainable peatland management in the northern hemisphere massively dwarves/gnomes that in the tropics, as oil palm and fires spread across the millenia-old peat bogs of Southeast Asia
  • *We’ve got until 2030 to manage all of our soils more sustainably, says Defra.  Great.  How?
  • HIghland Park uses minimal peat in its whisky production

Here’s the poster I presented on behalf of Rezatec….

140922_IUCNPoster_Corrected

Needless to say I was glad to hear that mapping and monitoring were key requirements for improving peatland management in the UK!

And to end, some passionate delegates out on the peat, and the beautiful Sphagnum moss (plus friends) for good measure….

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Contenders for the Darwin awards?

Imagine this: you work for the Northern Powergrid, replacing wooden electriticy poles across the Cumbrian landscape.  Your specific role is driving the big diggers – the power behind the project.  You’re wanting to get your digger across the valley to the pole-replacement ground in time to get back home for tea.  So why not take a short-cut across that 1000 acres of flattish area you see infront of you?

Because …. YOU’LL SINK!  That’s what happened when Digger #1 attempted to cross the Butterburn Flow (what a name!) upland peat bog back in September.  What’s more, it’s a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI); there were fears that oil leakages and the general disturbance would threaten the ecosystem.  Cue Digger #2.

Two diggers are stuck in the bogImage credit: ITV Border.

Digger #2 went in after Digger #1 on a rescue mission, and guess what?  IT SUNK!  Two huge diggers stuck-in-the-mud.

According to reports, there was a retrieval plan involving a temporary metal road surface, probably more diggers and a lot more people.  So they are likely to be out now, but I doubt they made it home in time for tea.

Contenders for the Darwin Awards?