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.
Talking shop with the team, at the edge of a bog.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.)
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….
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.