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.

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.

It’s not rocket science.

I have just read this.  The Malaysia Palm Oil Board (MPOB) is hooking up with the Sarawak Oil Palm Plantation Owners Association (SOPPOA) to figure out what is going wrong with palm oil production in Sarawak.  Amongst other issues, members of SOPPOA have been complaining of: “oil palm estates (having a) …. serious infestation of Tirabatha (a moth of the pest variety), particularly in the lower Baram and central coastal regions, poor fruit set, bunch failures, lower frond dessication and acid sulphate soil problems”.  The lower Baram and coastal regions are mostly peatlands.  Acid sulphate soils result from the draining, oxidation and resultant subsidence of peat, exposing the underlying acid sulphate soils.  It’s not rocket science.

MPOB, the oil palm research and management organisation in Malaysia (Government-funded and led) that directs the production of palm oil across the three States of Malaysia, will conduct the research and report to SOPPOA.  SOPPOA is somewhat at MPOB’s mercy to suggest how farmers across the State of Sarawak can maximise yields and profit, especially from the coastal peatland zones, for which there is limited to zero knowledge on best management practices, from an optimum profit point of view.  From an environmental point of view, I’m not sure there is a point of view.

I wonder what MPOB will conclude.


Retreating from peat!

A degraded tropical peatland in Borneo, with an approximately five year old oil palm plantation in the distance.

A deforested and drained tropical peatland in Borneo, with an approximately five year old oil palm plantation in the distance.

(I also just published this on the UK Tropical Peatland Working Group website.  Worth a quick gander!)

Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) has decided to ‘immediately retire’ approximately 7,000 hectares of its acacia plantations in Indonesia, with the goal of restoring them to intact peat swamp forest and developing a peatland best management practice model.  This is a bold move, forfeiting profits to comply with their Forest Conservation Policy (FCP).  Just over a year ago, they proved to be conservation forerunners again, (loudly) announcing to ‘protect and restore’ one million hectares of forest.  These come as welcome actions from APP, after it spent many years (and still is?) leading the deforestation frontier across Sumatra and Kalimantan, replacing hugely diverse ecosystems with monoculture plantations, and draining many a peatland along the way.

As Wetlands International say, there’s still a long way to go before APP can claim to be conserving, rather than destroying peatlands.  For example, how do they plan to rewet the peatlands?  What species are they going to plant into the current monocultures, and when?  How will they manage fire risk (heightened this year by ENSO) and potential flooding?   What will be the likely carbon emissions under different restoration strategies?  These are all important questions that researchers can help to answer.  Members of the UK Tropical Peatland Working Group are certainly on the case (watch this space).

But APP have given us a goal to hold them accountable to….and we must.

More information on the restoration mission from Deltares, APP’s independent peat expert team, can be found here.

Peat’s muddy past

Today, at some point, the Special Feature on Forest resilience, tipping points and global change processes will be published by the Journal of Ecology.  With some tweeking, I managed to get an article accepted in it, showcasing the work I presented at the symposium of the same name at INTECOL, back in 2013.  And here is the article I wrote to accompany it, freshly posted on the Journal’s blog.

Unashamedly, this post is all about peat!  More on Tanzania very soon though, when I find time in between Christmas preparations and gluttony.


What is so special about peat?  To the untrained eye, these ecosystems appear as desolate swamps, with limited value, biodiversity- or other-wise.  To the seasoned wetland ecologist, the more apt question is what isn’t special about peat?  These long-neglected ecosystems are vital reservoirs of fresh water for us thirsty humans; they contain ten times as much carbon as all of the world’s forests, whilst occupying only 3% of the Earth’s surface; and house a rich diversity of species found nowhere else.  Yet as we begin to learn more about the world’s peatlands, we master the technologies needed to exploit them rapidly and irreversibly (Fig. 1).


Fig. 1      A drained peatland in Indonesian Borneo, with young oil palm plants in the foreground and heavily degraded peat swamp forest in the background.

To be scientifically accurate, the irreversible component of peatland conversion is an assumption, wanting of sufficient evidence from “the field” due to the recent nature of large-scale exploitation.  But any ecosystem we see today is a product of its evolving past; a period over which it has encountered disturbances and presented a response.  From these patterns of responses, we can measure the resilience of the ecosystem (Cole et al., 2014) and develop hypotheses as to how it may respond to future disturbances.  In its simplest form, resilience is described as the ability of an ecosystem to maintain its structure and function despite perturbation (Holling, 1973).

How resilient are peatlands?  Specifically, how have the tropical peat swamp forests of Southeast Asia responded to disturbance in the past?  We sought to answer these questions for the coastal peatlands of Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo (Cole et al., 2015) (Fig. 2).

The plug is rapidly being pulled on these sweaty, mosquito-ridden jungles as industrial-scale agriculture spreads like wildfire across the region.  Dipterocarp forests, rich in a variety of fruit-bearing trees, ‘black-water’-adapted fish and nimble mammals, are being drained, flattened and converted into monoculture landscapes where oil palms (Elaeis guineensis) can quickly bring economic profit to even the inexperienced farmer.  Though wild-fires themselves are in fact a rare phenomenon in intact peatlands, the recent elevation in burning has been blamed primarily on the recent expansion of agriculture, and brought huge environmental, health and political challenges to the region.  But how frequent were fires in the past?  And what impact did they have on the vegetation?

Unlike in the temperate zone, tropical peat swamps are naturally forested.  It is the pollen grains and fern spores produced by this vegetation that provide the answers to our questions and insights into the resilience of these ecosystems.  Fossilised grains, deposited tens to millions of years in the past, are one of the primary datasets available in palaeoecology.  Often referred to as (the less archaic-sounding) long-term ecology, the discipline extends the scope of ‘short-term’ ecology through using deposited remains to study plants and animals and their interactions with the environments of the past.

We used pollen grains, fern spores and fossil charcoal to explore drivers and impacts of disturbance in three peatland areas in northern Borneo.  Peat cores were collected from three coastal sites in Sarawak (Fig. 2), where peat extends over approximately 13% of the States’ land surface.  The depths of the cores ranged from c. 1.5 to 3m, and radiocarbon dating of sediment samples from each demonstrated that they covered a period of 2000 to 7000 years before present (BP).


Fig. 2      The three degraded peatland sites (red circles; DPL, PSF & CPL) from which cores were collected for this palaeoecological study, in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.  Sarawak’s peatlands are shown in brown and its major towns in blue.

Once I’d spent many more hours than I’d like to remember counting and identifying microscopic pollen grains, I was able to look for answers to our key research questions:

  • How has the vegetation in these peatland ecosystems changed through time?
  • What factors disturbed the peat swamp forest vegetation?
  • How did these ecosystems respond to the different disturbances?

Vegetation change

Our data demonstrated that peat swamp forest vegetation has persisted in these coastal peatlands since the onset of ecosystem development c. 4000yrs BP.  At this time, coastal progradation, resulting from sea-level fall, provided land suitable for peat to accumulate.  Apart from fluctuations between pioneer and mature peat swamp forest species over this period, reflecting local disturbances and dynamic internal responses (Fig. 3), the only significant vegetation change observed was shown in the last 500 years in two of the cores.  Increases in plant taxa associated with degraded peatlands suggested the introduction of humans and land use change to these coastal ecosystems.


Fig. 3      Relatively intact peat swamp forest patch, near to the site where the “PSF” core was extracted (Fig. 2).


There were three drivers of vegetation change that we focused on in this study, each with its associated palaeoecological proxy: climatic variability, such as El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) activity, identified through a literature review; local and regional fire inferred from fossil macro- and microcharcoal respectively, and anthropogenic activity indicated by pollen and spores of plants common in open areas, such as grasses (Poaceae) and sedges (Cyperaceae).  The literature reported increasing intensity of ENSO events in this region over the late Holocene, subjecting northern Borneo to arid conditions.  Burning, both from local and regional fires, occurred throughout the past in all three sites, though elevated dramatically in the last c. 500 years in parallel with greater levels of open vegetation indicators.

Vegetation response

Only within the recent past, from c. 200-500 years BP, did the peat swamp forest vegetation show signs of being ‘disturbed’.  Prior to this period, episodes of more intense ENSO and burning did not appear to correspond with notable declines in the peat swamp forest taxa, suggesting ecosystem resilience to these forms of perturbation.  However, given that elevated levels of open vegetation indicators and charcoal do correlate with the declines observed in the recent past, and in the period when literature and interviews suggest humans started exploiting these environments, it is likely that anthropogenic activities are responsible.  Though a lack of sufficient data prevents us from inferring whether these changes equate to a recent loss of ecosystem resilience, we have made several conclusions:

  • These peat swamp forests have shown resilience to natural disturbances in the past;
  • Levels of disturbance within the last c. 500 years have exceeded those recorded in the previous 5000 years, and humans are the main culprits;
  • Recent, coincident instability and declines in peat swamp forest taxa suggest a notable anthropogenic impact on this ecosystem, potentially challenging the future persistence of these forests.

Back to the future

So, what more do we need to know about these vital* ecosystems?  Our study has provided some baseline data and information on the functioning of the coastal peat swamp forests of northern Borneo, but there are many other patches of peat around the island, and indeed the whole region to investigate.  In order to design more sustainable management practices for these unique ecosystems, it is important that we find out more about their ecology, past and present, and in particular their ability to respond to different disturbances.  With fire posing a major threat to the persistence of Southeast Asian peatlands, and the resultant carbon emissions posing a major threat to us, we need to gather insights from patterns of past recovery and build an understanding of peat swamp forest resilience.  And fast, before there’s no mud left.

*I hope I have convinced you of their extreme importance by now!



Cole, L.E.S., Bhagwat, S.A. & Willis, K.J. (2014) Recovery and resilience of tropical forests after disturbance. Nature Communications, 5:3906, 1-7. Doi: 10.1038/ncomms4906.

Cole, L.E.S., Bhagwat, S.A. & Willis, K.J. (2015) Long-term disturbance dynamics and resilience of tropical peat swamp forests. Journal of Ecology – Special Issue on Forest Resilience. Doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.12329.

Gaveau et al. (2014) Major atmospheric emissions from peat fires in Southeast Asia during non-drought years: evidence from the 2013 Sumatran fires. Nature, 4:6112. Doi: 10.1038/srep06112.

Holling, C.S. (1973) Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 4, 1–23.

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

Spotting peat

For anyone who wants a relatively concise introduction to the Peat Spotter project I’ve been working on for the last year with Rezatec, funded by the European Space Agency, we’ve just published a promo video on YouTube.  I’ll aim to write a bit more about it soon for those avid peat spotters out there.  For now, prizes for those that spot my precious clubbed thumb in action.


An area in Central Kalimantan where we trialled some of the equipment and protocols that we’ll use to spot peat, in the ‘field’.  Here we have a typical Southeast Asian scene of drained peat, with oil palms planted in the fore- and background, and a degrading fragment of forest off in the distance.  Whether that patch of trees can actually be called a forest is another thing.  


Protecting PEAT

This is the first of many peat-related posts.  Towards the end of 2013, I was interviewed by Laura Bramley for her post on The Freshwater Blog – a great site that regularly publishes information of relevance to freshwater management, conservation and policy, as part of the European Union-funded MARS project.  Laura managed to eloquently transcribe my mumblings, to an extent that I had a much clearer outlook on my research and career direction after reading it.  I’m posting it here in case it provides a useful insight into why I’m so passionate about peat.  Thanks, Laura!