Telling tales of many Ps

I wrote this piece for Blog and Log – the blog site that records outreach activities of the Institute of Integrative Biology and the School of Life Sciences at the University of Liverpool, to which I currently belong (for two & a bit more months).

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity* to talk, twice, about a topic related (slightly tenuously) to my research and very close to my heart.  On the evening of Wednesday 19th September I stood on the stage at Leaf, facing the Ignite Liverpool crowd, to present on “The Three Ps”; and on Saturday 22nd September I stood on a soapbox in Sheffield’s busy shopping district, to shout about “Peanut butter, palm oil and peat; getting un-stuck in the mud” to a bunch of slightly bemused passers-by.  They were quite different forums with which to share my knowledge and passion, but I learnt a good deal from preparing for and presenting at each.  Here’s a quick low-down of each event, which might hopefully inspire you to get involved in the future.

Ignite Liverpool is the brainchild of a community organisation that runs quarterly events, providing a platform on which anyone can talk for a whistle-stop five minutes about a subject they are passionate about.  The challenge is to convey a coherent story in five minutes, in synchrony with the visuals on your 20 slides which flash up for five seconds in a continuous reel.  I managed to mumble in time to the slides until the penultimate one, where my dialogue turned to dust!  It was a fun experience though, and useful in considering how to design succinct propaganda.  If you’d like to know more about the tale of The Three Ps, you can watch my performance here.  I would recommend giving Ignite a go if you live in Liverpool, or any of the other cities where it’s held (e.g. Sheffield); it’s a great opportunity to practice your public speaking and communication skills on any topic of your choice, in front of a very supportive, slightly tipsy crowd.  The most hilarious talk at the last event was entitled Any Colour you like, where all of the slides where shades of black!

Ignite_screen

Reeling off about peat at Ignite Liverpool. (Note the ‘1 view’ – that was me!)

Soapbox Science proved a less well-polished, more chilled-out and slightly chillier event!  The initiative was started eight years ago by two female Biologists, with the goal of creating a public outreach platform on which female scientists could promote their science, whilst simultaneously increasing the profile of women in the STEM sector.

I chose to talk about the same issues on the soapbox as I did on the stage: a narrative around the prolific commodity, palm oil, which links our consumption behaviour in the UK to the draining and deforestation of peat swamp forests in Southeast Asia.  Orang-utans, the people of the forest, were the protagonists, of course.  As part of my PhD research (a few years ago now!), I explored the long-term ecology and contemporary management of the coastal peat swamp forests of Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo, and have since been monitoring their declining condition and the ever-expanding state of industrial oil palm plantations across the region.  Though my Soapbox performance was not as succinct as I’d hoped (more prep required next time to catch the attention of a transient audience), I managed to have an interesting discussion with several members of the general public on topics of environmental sustainability and the RSPO.  The conversation with one chap, as engaged as he was disillusioned, only concluded when we decided that capitalism needed to be scrapped.  Unfortunately, I didn’t feel qualified to propose an alternative solution.

Ignite_slide

Illustrating the link between peatlands, palm oil and peanut butter

I found both experiences hugely valuable, primarily because I gained some idea of the level of knowledge amongst the general public on some everyday consumer issues.  People were less aware than I’d realised.  To place your science into a ‘real world’ context, to understand how it might fit into the lives of your neighbours, and to learn how you can inspire people to care as you do, I would recommend standing up on as many platforms as you can.

 

*The opportunity was created by me through signing up to two events without realising they were in the same week!  I questioned my life choices many times when preparing for them into the wee hours of the morning …. though as per usual have no regrets, in retrospect.

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My boggest achievement of 2017

 

Nearing two years ago, I was made aware of the World Bog Snorkelling Championships (and popped out a quick post to my two-strong readership).  Life has barely been recognisable since.

Back last year, on a heady day in late August (26/08/17, around 16:04:07), in the depths of mid-Wales, under the hot mid-afternoon sun (yes, sun and heat in Wales), I became the 2017 Female World Champion of Mountain Bike Bog Snorkelling.

Below is footage of my world-leading performance. (And might answer a few questions for the reader.)

It’s not as easy as I make it look.

And less than 24 hours later, having barely recovered from the previous day’s exertions, I competed, as an orangutan, in the World Bog Snorkelling Championships.  I was aiming to raise awareness of the plight of the poster people of tropical peatlands.

Despite my (best?) efforts, I wasn’t the fastest female/primate in the bog, but I did come second in the Fancy Dress competition (more time having been spent on my costume than any form of snorkel training); the judges enjoyed my “tropical bird” costume….

Orang_bog

My winning ORANGUTAN costume, in all of it’s glory pre-bog.

I am currently in training (starting from soon) for this year’s competition, and more carefully considering my choice of attire.  If you are free in late August, I would strongly recommend you get involved.  This year also sees the return of the biennial World Alternative Games.  There is a competition for everyone, with options ranging from pooh sticks, to gravy wrestling, and finger jousting.  I challenge you to find something you too can become a World Champion in.

There are few weekends in my rich life that have been as silly, as laughter-filled, boggy and friendly as this one I had the privilege to spend with the fantastic community of Llanwrtyd Wells.

See you there!

That Indonesian Peat Prize

Last week, a peaty piece of mine was published in the year’s first issue of Peatlands International, the magazine of the International Peatland Society.  Appropriate fodder for my blog, I thought.

~

After much anticipation, on World Wetlands Day in February of this year, the winning team of the Indonesian Peat Prize was revealed.  With two years from launch to completion, spanning a period of new and recurring outbreaks of fire in the country, controversial instructions on the use of peatland concessions and growing international pressure to divest funds from the palm oil industry, this announcement is much welcomed.  But what is the Indonesian Peat Prize?  Who are the winners?  And importantly, how might it contribute to tropical peatland conservation?

An area of deforested, drained and burnt peatland, converted into smallholder agriculture, within a Biodiversity Concession, Central Kalimantan province. Mapping of these activities, and the depth of peat on which they are happening, will assist with planning more responsible landscape management.

What is the Indonesian Peat Prize?

After the devastating peat fires of 2015, creating a toxic haze that covered parts of Southeast Asia for months, the spotlight was on Indonesia to address the cause of the burning.  Unsustainable land use in peatland areas was the primary offender, whether resulting from activities of industrial-scale oil palm and pulp and paper companies, smallholders, or a mixture of both.  Who exactly is to blame varies by place and perspective; further discussion of which will be left for another day!  In order to address this international disaster and restore the burnt landscapes, the Indonesian Government established the Peatland Restoration Agency, or BRG, in January of 2016.

Before the BRG could address the challenge of understanding the distribution of peatland (mis)uses and consider where to restore the ecosystem, there was a need to know where the peat actually is, and crucially, how deep it is.  There was already a map of peatland distribution in Indonesia: Wetlands International compiled one in 2004 and the Ministry of Agriculture in 2011, which can be accessed through the Global Forest Watch platform.  However, these maps offer a very coarse spatial resolution and an even coarser indication of how thick the peat is.  Since their production, earth observation and ground-based technologies have improved dramatically, making higher resolution mapping more feasible.

Cue the Indonesian Peat Prize.  The David and Lucile Packard Foundation provided one million USD to the Indonesian Government’s Geospatial Information Agency (BIG) with which to launch an international competition with the primary goal of developing a “fast, accurate and cost-effective way to map Indonesia’s vast tropical peatlands”.  The open competition had been bubbling away since February 2016, with a selection of finalists being put through their paces over the last six months.  But there could only be one winner!

And the winner is ….

The winning team is an international collaboration of scientists (mostly men!), coming from Indonesia, Germany and the Netherlands.  The aptly named International Peat Mapping Team (IPMT) comprises members from Indonesia’s Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT), South Sumatra province’s Sriwijaya University, and three German institutions: Greifswald University, the Remote Sensing Solutions GmbH (RSS) and Airbus DS Geo.  They convinced the judges of their ability to create a prototype method for surveying the country’s peatlands, with their proposed “multistage” solution: a cost-effective, versatile combination of satellite remote sensing, airborne LiDAR and ground-based measurements.  Though this group was awarded the prize, other finalists proposed using similar techniques (with the possibility of lower costs) which may also form part of the solution as the exercise unfolds.

A new oil palm plantation under development, at the edge of a protected peatland (with remnant peat swamp forest visible in the background). How far into the peat dome the plantation extends, and thus the extent of impact, will be measurable using the new mapping techniques.

How might the prize help peat?

In theory, the map will create a universal, repeatable method for mapping peatlands across Indonesia (and potentially the world).  Having One Map from which land covers can be defined and land uses observed and allocated will enable a greater transparency in local and national government decision-making.  It may also help to reduce the regular conflict encountered when land management decisions are made without complete information on land use and tenure.

In practice however, a lot of money has been spent on a mapping exercise that will only mean anything if there is money to spend on the management exercise to accompany it.  The conservation challenge on the ground is likely less to do with knowing the exact depth of a peat substrate and more to do with the depth of understanding of the people living there of how important maintaining a wet peatland is; coupled with the depth of understanding of the challenges and aspirations of those people by the institutions proposing sustainable management policies.  The cost of understanding the extent of the challenge, of figuring out how to restore such a transformed landscape and of enforcing the variety of potential policy solutions must not be underestimated.

Nazir Foead, the Head of the BRG, tasked with one of the most challenging jobs in the world, is “optimistic that the agency will complete the restoration program [of over 2 million hectares] by 2020“.  To put this into perspective, the UK has committed to having two million hectares of restored or sustainably managed peatlands by 2040, and that will likely be a struggle despite the growing funds available, the restoration expertise sourced from across the northern hemisphere and the level of national support (in the most part).  But the political commitment and transparency shown by Indonesia is admirable, and strongly welcomed at this critical point in the story of tropical peatlands.

Congratulations to the winners; good luck to the BRG.  Your work is just beginning!

Power from peat in Rwanda

Last week, an article that I showcased on my blog a few months ago was published (re-vamped) in The Conversation.  Since it went live, I’ve had some very interesting comments and conversations about where and how we get our electricity.  What is the best source of power for a country?  What factors are considered in making that choice?  Which takes precedence over energy-efficiency, cost-effectiveness and environmental impact?  Is the latter even considered?  I am beginning to understand the complexity of issues involved in making choices between fossil fuels, renewables, national and international energy supplies, access and development.  But I have much still to learn.  It’s perhaps the biggest challenge of our time.  Whatever the answer though, power from peat is surely not a solution.

Rwanda adds to energy mix with first peat-fired power plant in Africa

Image 20170406 6397 rtc6o3
Rwanda’s first peat-fired power plant at Gishoma is currently running at 10.85MW.
Rwanda Energy Group/Twitter

Lydia Cole, University of Oxford

Rwanda recently celebrated the opening of its first peat-fired power plant at Gishoma in the far west of the country, a $39.2M project. It is the first of its kind in Africa. The Conversation

Another larger peat plant, costing $350M is under development in Gisagara to the east. The plan is for Gishoma to start feeding 15MW of electricity into the national grid imminently, and Gisagara 80MW by 2019.

The Rwandan government is hoping to achieve its goal of connecting 70% of the country’s 11.7 million people to the national grid by 2018. This is a near three-fold increase on the number connected at present. The peat-to-power plant at Gishoma will contribute to this goal, and further increase the installed capacity of the nation. This will reduce Rwanda’s reliance on expensive imports of diesel oil for power generation.

At the moment, only 25% of households have access to the 190MW of power generated in country. But over the next two years the capacity is projected to reach 563MW in line with national development goals. This increase will be made possible in part through the harnessing of power from peat.

Peat power

Peat provides an effective energy source when dried, comprising a minimum of 30% organic matter. It develops under anaerobic conditions, where waterlogging significantly slows or prevents the decomposition of dead vegetation. As the vegetation grows in the surface layers, it absorbs atmospheric carbon through the process of photosynthesis. When it dies, this carbon is stored in the accumulating substrate which is peat.

Peatlands are found across the world. But they are concentrated within certain regions where high humidity or low temperatures reduce the rate of decomposition. These include the coastal lowlands of southeast Asia or northern Russia’s permafrost zones. Despite covering just 3% of the world’s ice-free land surface, peatlands store up to 30% of its total soil carbon stock. This makes them the most efficient carbon storage facility we have.

But arguably, not a renewable one. Though each peatland varies, one centimetre depth of peat may take an average of 10 years to accumulate, and less than 10 minutes to burn.

Rwanda energy mix

Rwanda’s energy comes from a diverse mix of renewable sources. Hydro-power is the main contributor at 59%, followed by thermal (40%) and methane (1%). There are also ambitious plans for off-grid power from solar.

Peat power is considered one of these more sustainable indigenous sources of energy. It has the potential to contribute nearly 20% to the national energy supply in five years’ time.

The Gishoma plant is nestled within the Nyungwe Forest National Park.
Shutterstock

It’s estimated that there will be sufficient peat deposits to power Rwanda for 30 years, or some proportion of the country at least. The enhanced power that will come from the Gishoma and Gisagara peat-to-power plants is seen as an important part of the country’s development provision.

The plans are enabled through financial support from the African Finance Corporation, the Development Bank of Rwanda and Finnfund, the Finnish Development Finance Company, among other lenders. Finland has expertise in peat extraction and its use in the energy industry, with an average of 5% of its national supply coming from peat. This was encouraged by subsidies until recently.

But where is Rwanda’s peat?

The Gishoma plant is nestled within the Nyungwe Forest National Park. This is an

untouched natural rainforest that is filled with exciting biodiversity.

The park’s website boasts of the presence of hundreds of species of trees and orchids within the park, such as the swamp-dwelling Eulophia horsfellii. It’s also host to numerous plants species of medicinal value, like the East African satinwood, Zanthoxylum gilletii, and to one of the last stable populations of chimpanzees in East Africa. But there is no mention of peat. It’s evidently not a key feature for the average tourist.

There are vast areas of peatlands across the Tropics that we are only now starting to map and understand their full extent and carbon content. For example, it was only a few months ago that the first map of the world’s largest tropical peat complex was published. Around 145,500 square kms of peat swamp forest was found in the central Congo Basin.

There may well be vast resources of peat in Rwanda that local residents have known about for years, or that the Finns have sniffed out recently, of which science has yet to be told or be concerned about. But whatever the scenario defining the nation’s peaty asset and wherever it is exactly, it is unlikely to be there for much longer if peat-to-power generation continues to be Rwanda’s cost competitive energy solution.

Given that it takes thousands of years to accumulate just hundreds of centimetres of peat, is peat-power really the solution to the nation’s energy needs? Can the Elon Musk’s out there create an energy-storage solution quickly enough that renewables make a serious contribution?

For now though, Rwanda is set to power through its peat.

Lydia Cole, Researcher Associate of the Department of Zoology; Environmental Scientist, Rezatec Ltd., University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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.

Part of the missing carbon sink?

PSF2-S_from_coring_site

A swamp in northern Borneo, same-same-but-different to those in central Africa.

Yesterday, a very exciting article was published in Nature, describing the vast area of peatland that has just been mapped and measured in the Congo Basin.  It’s even bigger than Wales, apparently.  It was discovered by Dr Greta Dargie and her former supervisor, Dr Simon Lewis, after many a long and hard hour spent traversing the unstable, humid and mosquito-ridden peatlands of the DRC and Republic of Congo.

The ‘finding’ of this peatland has elevated our most recent estimate of the magnitude of the peat carbon store across Africa by an incredible five times; vastly increasing our calculation of the total volume of tropical peatlands also.  Whilst it’s probably no news to local people that there’s a massive swamp in their back garden, it is unlikely that they, and evidently the global community, appreciated the real extent of this waterlogged forest and how much peat it was hiding underneath.  Why should they?  Underground carbon (a.k.a. peat), along with its climate change mitigation powers (and REDD+ revenue potential), is a relatively abstract concept.  But a hugely important natural phenomenon.

Given the remote location of the Cuvette Centrale peatlands the threat of industrial agriculture is unusually rare (unlike in Southeast Asia).  However this carbon store is not immune to the potential and pervasive impact of climate change, and specifically climatic drying, where evapotranspiration may exceed precipitation, as Professor Sue Page aptly explains.

I was honoured to be asked to comment on this important finding for a piece being written by the International Business Times.  I think I said some of what was quoted.  The Guardian has written a piece covering the work and its significance, as well as the The New York Times.  And for a more detailed account from Simon, have a read of The Conservation.

Well done, Team Congo-Basin, on such a spectacular peat of work.  Now we need to keep it there.

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.

References

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.