Round the world in eight peatlands

In December 2020, Charlotte Wheeler and I ran a session at the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting, all about peatlands. Here is my round-up of that Zoom-show. This piece was first published in Peatlands International 1.2021 and is being republished here with kind permission from the International Peatland Society.

On 18th December 2020, a group of peat experts gathered in a Zoom-room to share their tales of peatlands from across the world. They were all invited to take part in the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting, in a Thematic Session focusing on the climatic, ecological and societal importance of peatlands. Each of the eight speakers had significant knowledge and experience to share on a particular geography of peatlands and/or thematic area of research, from investigating burning in the peat swamp forests of Borneo to exploring research gaps in the Sphagnum-dominated bogs of Wales. Here we summarize some of the key points raised by each of our esteemed speakers.

The session was opened by Susan Page with an excellent summary of the key roles that peatlands play in societies across the world, and of the key challenges they face. Despite the multiple services they provide (as illustrated by Fig. 1), peatlands are being subjected to many different drivers of change (Loisel et al., 2020), which are degrading the peat carbon store at a rate that is incompatible with recovery over human timescales (Goldstein et al., 2020). Sue reminded us of the importance of addressing the world’s drained peatlands, a huge and increasing source of carbon emissions that will continue to emit until the peat is depleted. Within decades, the use of this finite resource for extractive and agricultural purposes will no longer be possible.

Fig. 1 The multiple ways that peatlands support livelihoods, presented by Sue Page.

Agriculture is one of the dominant ways in which people interact with peatlands across the world. In the peatlands of Southeast Asia, and notably Indonesia, smallholder farms and industrial plantations growing oil palm on peat are common. This has led to the generation of emissions from peatlands across Southeast Asia over the last 25 years, approx. 2500 Mt C, equivalent to half of the complete stock of carbon held in the UK’s peatlands, approx. 5500 Mt C. These UK-based stocks are also rapidly dwindling, as many organic soils are exploited for commercial agriculture and horticulture. In the year 2000, it is thought that peatlands worldwide changed from a net sink to a net source of carbon. In addition to emissions, peat subsidence is a significant issue, and one that will prevent use of peatlands in the future, especially with sea-level rise in coastal areas.

How then can peatlands continue to support the many livelihoods that depend on this wetland ecosystem and its resources? Balancing livelihood and climate security is a key challenge. One of the solutions is to think more strategically about where to produce food. Carlson et al. (2016) demonstrated that those peatland areas that produce some of the highest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from drainage-based agriculture, also produce some of the lowest returns when it comes to nutritional calories.

Sue reminded the audience that there is no such thing as truly sustainable management of drained peat soils; ‘responsible’ use is the only option. The essential first step in responsible use and in addressing the livelihood and climate challenge is raising water tables, leading to reduced emissions and increasing the lifetime of peat. Further research is needed and trials performed to explore viable ways of producing food using wet agriculture, or paludiculture (as named in the areas with the highest water table). There will be constraints to what can be produced and where, and inevitable trade-offs, but dryland agriculture is not a sustainable option for peatlands. Some of the key challenges that still need to be overcome include knowledge gaps, selecting appropriate types of crops, and balancing the needs of food security and livelihoods. Sue concluded by emphasising that there are significant compromises, constraints and inadequacies in education that need addressing to promote responsible peatland management. But as peat-based emissions continue to use up our national carbon budgets under the Paris Agreement, coupled with the continuing loss of agricultural land, the global community needs to act NOW.

Mark Harrison continued the discussion on emissions, but with reference to fire. The now frequent burning of peatlands in Southeast Asia is causing huge carbon, health and economic losses. What we know less about is the impact that fires are having on biodiversity. When forests burn, the canopy cover is greatly reduced, causing significant reductions in habitat and creating exposed ground that further dries. Studies have shown that, for example, there are lower abundances of butterflies in peatland areas impacted by burning. Aside from understanding more about the consequences of the fires for wildlife, another important, and often complex knowledge gap is around why the fires occur. Proximate causes include peat drainage, land use change and the use of fire in peatlands by people, whether purposefully or accidentally, creating ignition sources that are inadequately controlled. Once the reasons for peatland fires have been identified, solutions for managing and restoring them can be trialled (Harrison et al., 2020a). Mark emphasised that before any restoration work is even conceived, it is vital to ask what goal of that intervention is; restoration for what, and for whom? The Kalimantan Lestari project (translating to Sustainable Kalimantan), encompassing a multi-institutional interdisciplinary research team, will aim to ask these questions, along with many others. Coordinated by the University of Exeter, it will address the challenge of fire in the peatlands of Indonesian Borneo, with a focus on: (i) drivers of fire; (ii) impacts of fire; and (iii) ways of reducing the risk of and to increase resilience to fire, with the central goal of working holistically with and supporting local communities. As a final note, Mark brought our attention to the some of the challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to tropical peatlands (Harrison et al., 2020b).

From Southeast Asia’s largely degraded, fire-prone peatlands, the focus switched to the intact peat-forming forests of the Cuvette Central in Central Africa. A huge area of peatland was mapped by Greta Dargie in 2017 (Dargie et al., 2017), lying within the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo. Although the geospatial boundaries of the peatland are now known, there remain huge uncertainties in the carbon stocks held within the peat complex; a stock of great international interest. Greta reminded us to think beyond carbon though, to appreciate that these areas also hold spiritual value to local communities, along with many of the ecosystem services mentioned by our host of speakers. In acknowledgement of this important resource, the two Congolese Governments signed the Brazzaville Declaration in March 2018, which aims to improve cooperation and conservation activities between these two peat-rich nations. There are already some protective structures in place on the ground, e.g. Ramsar Sites, National Protected Areas, but with the pressures of developing economies and increasing interest in hydrocarbon extraction from the region, there is a need to enhance protection and the accountability of the Government. The international community must provide financial and other forms of support to help avoid dangerous land use change, and to ensure the peatlands are in the most favourable condition to withstand the unknown consequences of ongoing climate change in the region. New maps suggest that large areas of the Cuvette Central are made up of hydrologically isolated domed peatlands (Davenport et al., 2020), which are more vulnerable to the predicted warmer and drier conditions to come. There is currently a huge research effort underway, CongoPeat, to explore the past and present dynamics of these important tropical peatlands, and to better predict how they might respond to future climate change. The project aims to provide the two Congolese Governments with best information possible, to enable them to make wise decisions for the climate, livelihoods and biodiversity.

The Congo is not the only region with largely intact but relatively threatened tropical peatlands. The peatlands of the Peruvian Amazon contain huge volumes of carbon, stored under a large diversity of wetland forest types and open areas. Despite the peatlands being relatively intact, due to no or limited drainage activities within the flooding basin of the Amazon river, they are various notable uses of these ecosystems. Euridice Honorio described the harvesting of aguaje fruit from Mauritia flexuosa palm swamps, often found growing on peat. This harvesting is important for local livelihoods, providing them with a natural resource to sell at local markets. It is also predominantly sustainable a practice, and as such, an example of the importance of incorporating local knowledge and practices into landscape conservation and management plans. There is concern, however, that the degradation of these peatlands is an imminent possibility, as rice cultivation, mining, oil palm plantations and associated new infrastructure creep geographically closer (Fig. 2). Euridice emphasised the need for more protected areas, strengthened territorial management strategies and the use of scientific knowledge in policy making. But the first step is for greater recognition of the peatlands themselves. Euridice is currently working with Peru’s Ministry of Environment to create a definition for the nation’s peatlands, followed by a strategy for protecting them.

Fig. 2 Euridice Honorio discussing the current threats to the conservation of Peru’s lowland peatlands.

From the tropical latitudes, the discussion moved to the temperate zone, and in particular, Ireland. With the third greatest area of peat in Europe, Ireland is a nation with an extensive history of peat extraction for fuel. This practice has resulted in 82% of its peatlands undergoing drainage-based use, with the closest to a natural state being those under restoration. Catherine Pschenyckyj illustrated this point with the fact that 90% of Ireland’s soils are now carbon sources, rather the sinks they would previously have been as intact peatlands. In addition to carbon emissions, peat slides are an emergent property of these degraded landscapes, with impacts on the quality of water supplies, on communities of aquatic biota and on local people. However, Catherine provided encouraging news on the changes that are on the horizon: peat-fuelled power stations are closing; peatland rehabilitation projects are underway, with Bord na Mona, one of the largest energy generation companies in Ireland, investing money in restoring the sites from which they have harvested peat for many years; and projects monitoring restoration success being resourced in parallel. However, peat extraction has not halted yet, with still significant plans in place, driven in part by the horticulture industry. Catherine ended by emphasising the need to find solutions that benefit the environment and businesses.

Crossing back over the Irish Sea, Jon Walker spoke about Welsh peatlands, and namely a project he is working on to identify key gaps in the evidence base that is available for developing policy around peatland management in Wales. Through a literature review, he identified a dearth of research on forestry practices in Welsh peatlands, and a bias towards certain areas or topics, such as greenhouse gas emissions. Results from this important study, highlighting themes that require greater research focus, will feed into the Welsh Peatland Research Network, and in turn, direct the generation of robust science to fill evidence gaps for the National Peatland Action Programme of the country.

Moving to the north of the UK, Rebekka Artz described the work she has been involved in to map Scotland’s peatlands. There has been an increasing interest in, and need to map peatlands all over the world, but in particular in those places where there is money to invest in restoration. In Scotland, £250 million has been devoted to peatland restoration; the nation where the greatest area of peatlands is being restored across the world. The Scottish Government now has to decide where they can make the most effective and efficient investment of those funds. The first step is to locate the peatlands in an unfavourable condition, using models that predict how intact a peatland is from a range of remotely sensed cues, such as surface moisture. High resolution satellite data, i.e. from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 and 2, along with training data, primarily obtained through ground surveys, are key to making the modelling more accurate in depicting the situation on the ground (e.g. Williamson et al., 2020). Once the condition of the peatlands has been assessed, priority areas identified and restoration work commenced, the progress of interventions needs to be monitored. Variables such as change in vegetation and water table dynamics can be measured remotely, to give an indication of the resilience of peatlands to drought conditions. With this information, Rebekka and colleagues are working to develop an online decision support tool to assist stakeholders in choosing the most appropriate management options for a particular peatland in a given condition. Restoration tools developed in Scotland may prove useful in other regions, such as Canada, where vast areas of peatlands are ripe for restoration after the damaging exploitative activities of past decades.

Finally, Sarah Proctor, of the IUCN UK Peatland Programme, provided food for thought to close the session: “we need business unusual”. The recognition by UK society of the great importance of peatlands has been slow, but does appear to have now occurred and at a critical time. This is exemplified by the publication of the UK Peatland Strategy (Fig.2) in 2018. This document details solutions for managing peatlands across the UK and its overseas territories, with a vision and targets for a healthier peatland nation by 2040. The specific goals of the strategy include: (i) Conservation, of blanket bogs (globally rare), raised bogs, fens; (ii) Restoration of heavily degraded peatland to functioning ecosystems, e.g. of Blackhill in the Peak District; (iii) Adaptive Management, moving away from our established culture of drainage-based dryland agriculture, which is a huge source of GHG emissions; (iv) Sustainable Management, considering the truly sustainable options for peatland use; (v) Coordination, via instruments such as the UK Peatland Code and the Eyes on the Bog Initiative; and, vitally (vi) Communication, producing a wide variety of resources for different stakeholders. Sarah ended by emphasising that healthy peatlands are central to so many of the other goals we are striving for at a national and international level  and which will be discussed next year in Glasgow at the 26th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26).

Fig. 3 The UK’s first collaborative Peatland Strategy was developed by the IUCN UK Peatland Programme Partnership back in 2018 to capture and embed, for the long term, a shared vision for our peatlands, helping to maintain a focus across a broad partnership and allowing progress to be monitored.

The talks provided an overview of some the unique and many shared challenges that peatlands and their associated communities face across the world. Awareness of the importance of these ecosystems is rising, but there is still a lack of integrated thinking and sustainable actions at national to international levels. Research into peatland functioning and management has perhaps never been as pressing as it is now. And until we have the answers, panelists reminded the audience of the central rule of peatland management: to keep these wetlands wet. 

The highs of boggy flows in 2020

To kick off what has already been an incredible year on many fronts (!), I was tasked with writing a post for the International Peatland Society’s blog, in my role as the Coordinator of the Peatlands and Biodiversity Expert Group within the organisation. Mark Harrison joined me in extracting some positive news about peatlands from 2020, to inspire us to keep speaking up for swamps in the year ahead. (The piece below is being reposted from the IPS blog, accessed here.) Onwards, and bog-wards.

As we say goodbye to 2020, to what has been an incredibly and unpredictably challenging year in many ways for many people, it is important to sift through the muddy (swamp) waters for positive news. For peatlands, the last 12 months have provided many sources of hope. Various happenings have brought the societal relevance of peatlands further into the public eye, and shone light on some of the great work of peatland scientists and practitioners across the world. Here are a few highlights (hopefully you also know of many more!).

There is a passionate campaign underway to make The Flow Country into a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced in July that it will support the bid to UNESCO to consider this vast area of blanket bog as a significant jewel in humanity’s crown. If The Flow Country peatlands, which cover 2,000 km2 within the region of Caithness and Sutherland in northern Scotland, are given World Heritage Site status, they will enjoy increased resources for their protection and restoration (supporting further excellent work such as this), and helping the UK to achieve its net zero climate targets. The campaign team are busy working on the nomination materials, which will be reviewed by the UNESCO Committee in 2023. In the meantime whilst we await their decision, the RSPB’s Forsinard Flows reserve continues to provide access to this wonderful site (in the absence of Covid-restrictions!).

This year has seen noteworthy articles published that raise awareness of the importance of peatlands as an irrecoverable carbon stock (Goldstein et al., 2020), highlight the importance of better understanding peatland carbon dynamics and incorporating them into global climate models (Loisel et al., 2020), evaluate the relative impacts of incentive vs. deterrent interventions on peat fire outcomes (Carmenta et al., 2020), and assess the value of understanding people’s engagement with peatlands and the reasons behind “caring for Cinderella” (Byg et al., 2020). In addition to these, and of central relevance to this year’s main news story, Harrison et al. (2020) published an article describing the role that tropical peatlands play in the context of global disease pandemics.

Covid-19 has touched us all, including the communities living in the World’s peatlands. Working with an international team of co-authors (including us both), Harrison et al. (2020), make apposite connections between the current Covid-19 pandemic and tropical peatlands drawing attention to the consequences of neglecting this globally important ecosystem in these challenging times. We describe how tropical peatlands could prove a potential source of zoonotic emerging infectious diseases in the future, with wildlife harvesting and habitat degradation bringing people into contact with potential animal vectors. Of more immediate effect, we describe the likely/ensuing impacts that the Covid-19 pandemic is already having on communities living in and around tropical peatlands. Food security, health provisioning and livelihoods have been compromised by the interruptions to transport resulting from the pandemic within the peatlands of Borneo and the Peruvian Amazon. Peatland research, restoration and conservation have also all been disrupted, increasing the susceptibility of already degraded peatland areas to fire and illegal activities. On a positive note, the article concludes by providing specific recommendations on how tropical peatlands can be managed to mitigate the risks of this pandemic and potential future ones. Hopefully these recommendations will be heeded.

Buenos Aires, Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, Peruvian Amazon
Urarina indigenous groups

Many tropical peatland areas are vulnerable to the impacts, whether directly or indirectly, of Covid-19 (Harrison et al., 2020). A remote tropical peatland community in Buenos Aires (upper image), within the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, Peruvian Amazon, which is accessible only by boat. People living here and in neighbouring communities rely heavily on resources extracted from the surrounding peat-forming Mauritia flexuosa palm swamps. Urarina indigenous groups living in peat-rich areas, harvest palm leaves from which to make textiles (lower image); important both practically and culturally for these isolated communities. The palms also offer plentiful food for wild fauna and thus the palm swamps in which they grow are important hunting spaces for people, providing bushmeat in locations far from the nearest market. Photo credits: Lydia Cole.

Finally, the UK Government has been put under further pressure recently to ban peat compost for amateur gardeners. The UK aimed to phase out peat compost for home use in England this year, but the target was only voluntary, meaning political will is limited and enforcement non-existent. Campaigns drawing attention to this Government failing are helping to ensure it does not go unnoticed.

Despite these ‘wins’ for peatlands in 2020, there remain many challenges to protecting these invaluable ecosystems sufficiently from degrading human activities (for example in the Congo basin and Indonesian Borneo). Continuing to bring peatlands into public view and onto national and international policy agendas is vital, and one that the International Peatland Society is committed to as we dive into 2021.  

Dr. Lydia Cole, Coordinator IPS Biodiversity Expert Group
University of St. Andrews

Dr. Mark E. Harrison
University Of Exeter, Cornwall

Showcasing my research, on the bog

On 26th November 2020, I had some fun getting stuck into the Scottish Research Showcase. It involved creating a short video that represented an aspect of my work. So I created the (rather naff!) introduction to peatlands that’s embedded in the tweet below. There were some fantastically creative videos made by other Scotland-based researchers, so I’d recommend browsing #Exploration20 #GlobalScienceShow tweets from the day (e.g. one researcher tells their story via an animation in the form of crochet!). I have much to learn about, and from, the boundless and fun world of science communication!

The other two tweets in my offering were:

IS IT REALLY RENEWABLE, FOR PEAT’S SAKE?

I’m re-posting this blog with permission from the University of St Andrews’ Energy Ethics group, for whom I wrote this piece.

As part of Energy Ethics 2020, I joined three other panellists on Friday 13th November to debate the question: Are renewable energy technologies a sustainable solution for meeting the world’s growing energy needs? It was a fascinating 90 minutes, filled with interesting and shocking facts about the dimensions of renewable energy in the 21st Century. I learnt that if we wanted to rely on biofuels, we would have to plant crops on the whole of the world’s terrestrial surface in order to replace the 15 Empire State Buildings’ worth of crude oil that is currently extracted per day; that an average electric car uses three times more copper than a conventional car (where does this come from!?); and that many people in the Majority World lack access to sufficient energy to light up their homes for educational purposes or to cook without subjecting the household to air pollution, let alone have access to renewable energy sources. The challenges of powering the world on renewable technologies were as palpable as the need to overcome them in order to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels; and reducing this reliance is imperative if we are to limit the impacts of ongoing climate change.

I am an ecologist, who has studied landscapes in which bio-energy production has been one option for land use. Since energy use and sourcing is a topic that touches all of our lives, I have spent some time thinking about how we might produce renewable energy whilst ensuring we uphold the environmental pillar of sustainable practice. I remember being excited by palm oil, touted as the great solution to diesel-fuelled transport. After millions of hectares of Southeast Asia were converted into oil palm plantations, the critiques started to roll in: we are taking up precious agricultural land to fill our cars with biofuels whilst people starve; we are destroying miles upon miles of biodiverse tropical forest to plant a monoculture that provides limited habitat for wildlife; we are creating huge carbon emissions in the process of growing this ‘renewable’ fuel, amongst other condemnations. I remember getting excited about Jatropha, claimed to be a more renewable alternative, as a biomass crop that could be grown in areas that were already ecologically degraded. But Jatropha did not prove the golden ticket either: the crop requires significant inputs of fertilisers, pesticides and water (through irrigation systems) in order to be productive, and the process of converting Jatropha seed oil into biodiesel results in large greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions itself. There are large questions around the sustainability of these two biofuels (and many others). There is also enquiry to be made around whether they are actually truly ’renewable’.

A commercial plantation in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, where the oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, is grown to produce palm oil. [Photo credit: Lydia Cole]

According to Oxford’s online Lexico, a renewable resource is defined as one that is “not depleted by use”. The resource therefore has to regenerate at the same rate that it is harvested or otherwise consumed. For example, sufficient time must be left between the logging rotations in a tree plantation to ensure that the trees grow to reproductive age before they are harvested. If trees are harvested too early in their growth cycle for natural regeneration to take place, a key dimension of the renewability of the resource is undermined, along with the interdependent system in which it grows: the soil, with its finite stock of nutrients and growing material; the water supply to ecosystem; and the diversity of plants and animals involved in nutrient cycling and natural regeneration. If the context and condition of the whole ecosystem is considered, as the fundamental housing from which renewable resources are produced, many of our current ‘renewable’ resources would be axed from the list.

An area of deforested peatland in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, in the process of being converted into an oil palm plantation. [Photo credit: Lydia Cole]

One resource that epitomises this renewability challenge is peat. Peat accumulates at an average rate of one millimetre per year, in waterlogged environments where the lack of oxygen slows down or entirely halts the process of decomposition. Burning one cubic meter of extracted peat is the equivalent to releasing one thousand years of accumulated carbon. It is produced through the natural process of harnessing the sun’s energy via photosynthesis, the same process as produces wood-fuel, but the slow regeneration time of peat demands that if we burn it, we must do so at an impractically slow rate.

Aside from the extensive time required to re-accumulate the equivalent carbon belowground that is extracted when peat is harvested, the process of extraction itself often leads to large carbon emissions. The equipment deployed uses fossil fuelled combustion engines and emits CO2, but even greater volumes of GHGs result from the disruption of the waterlogged environment, which is an inevitable part of the extraction process. This prevents the ongoing ‘sinking’ of CO2 from the atmosphere into the peat substrate. It also results in the release of carbon that was previously inaccessible to the forces of decomposition, which cycles the plant-derived organic carbon back into the atmospheric gas that we have come to dread. Rwanda, a country striving for domestic energy security and energy accessibility for all, has recently built a peat-fired power station. International financing and engineering assistance, primarily from Finland, has supported the development of this “sustainable electricity” infrastructure. But this strategy of burning peat for electricity generation is far from sustainable, and even further from a system harnessing a renewable resource, as I have touched on here.

Rwanda’s first peat-fired power plant at Gishoma. [Photo credit: Rwanda Energy Group/Twitter]

Though the balancing of the three pillars of environment, society and economics to develop sustainable solutions to meet our energy needs is no trivial task, a sufficient understanding and consideration of the environment component is essential if the other two pillars are not to be undermined. But when has any big transition occurred without challenge? And it is challenge that drives innovation and positive change. To end the discussion, the panellists were asked for their final (ideally positive!) reflections in order to provide food for thought moving forward. Building decentralised, appropriate renewable energy systems at a community level was mentioned by several of us. One panellist emphasised the need to create macro-policies with micro-foundations. He also reflected on the need for a dimension of international cooperation and support, through knowledge transfer and financial assistance, to lend the opportunities of renewable energy to those countries less able to develop their own. Promisingly, finding the money for these initiatives now seems more possible than ever, with recent COVID-19 related budget decisions demonstrating to the population here in the UK that our national Government can deliver when it chooses to. There was further optimism in the recent election of a new leader in the United States of America, Joe Biden, who has both acknowledged the reality of climate change and will likely choose to provide national and international leadership on approaches to solve this challenge. But we were reminded, as conscious citizens, that we must hold our leaders to account and show them that we are willing to embrace equitable and truly sustainable solutions to one of the greatest challenges of our age.

#WorldPeatlandsDay, the First

Re-posting here a quick plug I made for World Peatlands Day on the Tropical Wetlands Consortium blog.  Any excuse to post about peat.

Tuesday 2nd June, 2020, marked the first ever World Peatlands Day – a celebration of all things boggy, swampy, sucky, blanket-y, fen-y, etc.  The International Peatland Society launched the event in August 2019, to draw attention to peatlands as being a unique ecosystem type, with a unique set of values and challenges associated with their sustainable management, and thus deserving of a separate international day of recognition.  The longer-established World Wetlands Day happens on 2nd February every year, bringing the vast range of wetlands into the public eye; ecosystems that we all interact with and rely on in some way.  Peatlands are one major part of that story.

In celebration of the day, re-peat put on Peat-Fest, a very impressive 24 hours of online peat-related fun.  The British Ecological Society’s Peatlands Research and Conservation Ecology Groups co-hosted a peat- and conservation-themed quiz (part-organised and attended by members of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium).  Here are a few popular tweets illustrating yesterday’s celebration….

But if World Peatlands Day passed you by, don’t fear; there are plenty more days to celebrate peatlands to come*.  International BogDay is on Sunday 26th July, the World Bogsnorkelling Championships (now cancelled) are usually in mid-Wales (UK) on the August Bank Holiday weekend, and in July of 2021, the Swamp Soccer World Championships is to be held in Finland.  Do let us know if you spot more opportunities to celebrate these important ecosystems, in the Global North, South or swamps.

Spot the difference!

On 7th March B.C., during those heady days of frollocking in the sun/rain-shine, wholesome hugs and re-usable coffee cups, the University of St Andrews held a Science Discovery Day.  I was unable to attend unfortunately, but put together a poster for my research group – the Tropical Wetlands Consortium  – to pop up as part of their peat paraphernalia.  Below are two copies of the poster: (a) the poster before our seven year old consultant checked it for readability by the society members he was representing; (b) the revised version, edited in response to his valuable feedback.  There are four major differences.  Can you spot them (click on images to enlarge)?  And understand why the items in (a) weren’t accessible to our next generation of budding scientists?  The feedback was eye-opening for me, and I shall now be using this consultant regularly to accessibility-check my primary school-level outreach work.

(a) Pre-accessibility assessment

(b) Post-check by our seven year old consultant

A story of flaming bogs in Borneo

I’ve made a pact with myself that I will write a plain language summary for each paper I publish as the first author, to make my work more accessible for people beyond the ivory tower.  Some journals, e.g. People and Nature, now encourage this for each of their publications.  Whether you believe or not that scientists have a role in advocacy, I believe that sharing the treasure of knowledge with the people that funded our adventure is our responsibility.  And perhaps it’s better to tell the story with scientific facts, than ‘facts’ derived through alternative means?  Here is my first attempt at an accessible summary for my last publication. (Though it’s still too sciency, a good friend pointed out – I’ll try for properly plain next time!  All comments welcome!)

Over the past year, it’s been rare to pass a day without hearing of forests burning, whether in Australia, Brazil or Siberia.  The frequency and intensity of forest fires seem to be increasing, with devastating impacts on people and nature.  But fires in forests are not a new phenomenon and can be vital to the resilience of these ecosystems.  Historical and palaeoecological work can provide context from which to compare these contemporary fires and provide evidence to demonstrate the impact of management and policy.

One type of forest that has gained a global reputation in recent decades for its spectacular fires is degraded tropical peat swamp forest.  In an intact state, these waterlogged ecosystems accumulate carbon under their prevailing anaerobic conditions, making them hugely important for mitigating the effects of rising GHG emissions.  But are fires unique to degraded tropical peatlands or do intact peatlands burn too?

Our recent paper* answered this question for three peatland sites along the coast of northern Borneo, within the Malaysian state of Sarawak.  We collected a set of peat cores from each site and spent many hours in front of the microscope gathering data on elements of the landscape over the last 7,000 years.  Fossil pollen grains were identified to provide knowledge on the floral components of the landscape over time and distinguish major ecosystem types.  Fossil charcoal particles were counted to reconstruct past fire regimes in these swamps, including incidences of forest burning that were above the background levels.  We also looked at a wide range of historical and contemporary literature to explore the interactions that people have had with these peatlands over the last 500 years: the approximate time of people’s arrival in the flooded coastal forests, the changes in land titling and the political pressures on land management in recent millennia.

Our results demonstrate that intact tropical peatlands do burn.  They probably burnt more in years when the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) – a climatic phenomenon that brings drier, warmer weather to this region in irregular, sub-decadal intervals – was stronger, but the peat swamp forest seemed to recover even from these more intense fires.  However, cue people’s entry into the story, c. 1850s, and the narrative changes.  Fossil charcoal levels reach unprecedented levels, in parallel with indicators of deforestation.  And the peat swamp forest shows signs of losing its long-standing stability – the ecosystem’s resilience appears to be compromised by the simultaneous forces of fire and deforestation.

Many of the forests standing in the Anthropocene have been degraded.  Their resilience has been compromised by unusually low precipitation (resulting from regional climatic drying) or by management interventions that disrupt natural disturbance regimes, or by both, pushing them beyond the limits of their ecological memory.  Our work suggests that tropical peatlands have recovered from episodes of burning throughout the Holocene.  But the presence of people, agriculture and fire in peatlands seems to be a recipe for disaster.  There is no shortage of contemporary literature and news reports supporting the notion that a drained peatland burns.  Our work contributes to the common narrative that for climate change mitigation and for the universal long-term benefit of people and nature, drainage and deforestation are not compatible with sustainable management of tropical peatlands.

 

*Cole, L.E.S., Bhagwat, S.A., and Willis, K.J. (2019) Fire in the Swamp Forest: Palaeoecological Insights Into Natural and Human-Induced Burning in Intact Tropical Peatlands. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change. https://doi.org/10.3389/ffgc.2019.00048

 

 

Friend and FAO

Earlier this year, as a result of making friends at a conference years ago, I had the privilege of working with a bunch of the world’s most knowledgeable peat-ple on this article for the FAO, published to coincide with COP25: Peatlands: the challenge of mapping the world’s invisible stores of carbon and water. (Page 46-57 in the linked document).

Our main message, watered-down, is that mapping peatlands is no easy task and there is still much work to do on the ground, and across the globe….but we are fast working on these knowledge gaps and know enough about the important role that peatlands play in mitigating climatic change that we would be fools to let them squander.

The Jungle Book Part II: Still no Paddington

I return to tell a few tales of my recent stint of fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon, as part of the Leverhulme Trust-funded project: Valuing Intact Tropical Peatlands: an Interdisciplinary Challenge.

In early December, I returned to a cold and dark Scotland after two months in a warm and sunny Peru. Although, after spending weeks in mosquito-ridden swamps, it was a relief to at least leave them behind. The warmth and sunshine, less so!

Since early October, I had been based, along with Luis, another postdoctoral fellow from the University of St Andrews, and Charlotte, from the University of Edinburgh, in the central Amazonian town of Iquitos; the largest city without a road connection to the rest of the world. We spent several days there in between trips, organising the logistics, equipment and food for each period of fieldwork. All of our work is done in collaboration with, and would be impossible without, the fantastic team of ecologists and anthropologists based at IIAP (Instituto de las Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana).

This recent trip upstream to the Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin was the second of two that we made as a group in 2019. I wrote a bit about the previous one here. Earlier in the year we didn’t have time to visit all of the four communities we intended to, so returned to spend time in and collect data from the final two: Nueva Pandora (on the Tigrillo tributary of the Chambira River) and Jenaro Herrera (on the larger Ucayali river). We also revisited the two communities we’d got to know back in May and June of 2019: Veinte de Enero (at the edge of the Pacaya-Samiria National Park) and Nueva Union (on the Chambira river), to fill in some data gaps and to train more community members in how to use a personalised data collection tool, ODK.

Six action-packed weeks were spent up-river altogether, splitting our time between each community. As before, each day involved squelching out into the surrounding wetlands. Our goal was to learn more about the types of forests that the community uses or in some way interacts with, and what the belowground environment and aboveground ecology was in each location. We were guided to areas of importance (appropriate for surveying) by a community member, seeming to effortlessly navigate the sucking swamps. Meanwhile, we would stop to tip out the sloshing aquarium in our wellies every few hundred metres! If our community guide told us it would take 30 minutes to get to a certain site, we knew it would take us double that, minimum.

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Some of the incredibly strong women in Nueva Pandora, who were carrying kilos of palm shoots that they’d just harvested in the leach-infested swamps, back to their homes 30+ minutes away, without wellies. We stood and watching in awe as we set up a plot, in wellies.

Each location contributed a new angle to the story of lowland peatland development and ecology in the Peruvian Amazon and gave us food for thought on how people use this challenging landscape. Each location also yielded a novel short-term challenge, whether it be swarms of incessant bees, mosquitos who pay no attention to clothing or repellent, thigh-deep water, buckets of water being poured down from the heavens, snake super-highways, or ants who somehow turn up in your pants. Character-building at best; madness-inducing at worst. To my surprise, I left the jungle this time with a new love of the Amazon and its many wonders.

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Bees – many and everywhere.

With the majority of the fieldwork now complete, it’s time to find out exactly what’s inside the many bags of samples that we brought back with us (peat or organic matter-rich mineral soil?) and explore the ecological and social survey data we collected. One major goal of the project is to produce a cohesive output that combines the quantitative ecological data with the qualitative social survey data, which will tell the story of the local value of the variety of wetland ecosystems in the PMFB. This will be a challenge, as is often the case in interdisciplinary work, but one that we are primed for.

Another major goal is to return to each community with the relevant results of our study and of the interactive studies that community members are carrying out with ODK, in order to enrich their knowledge, where relevant, and thus capacity to manage their relations to their environment, the people they interact with and the State.

And of course, we have to return to defend our title on the football pitch. And to find Paddington.

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Our visiting Jiiri team posing with Nueva Pandora’s home team, the Leuuakus, after a long football match (and a long day in the swamp!). I am indebted too all of these people for their help and kindness over many days in the jungle.

Sucked in (to the swamps)

About a month ago, I got back from my first ever trip to the continent of South America.  And the reason for my visit?  Peat, of course.  Here is a blog post I wrote for my new(ish) research group, the Tropical Wetlands Consortium, on my recent adventure to the “chupaderas”, or sucking swamps, of the western Amazon. 

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A colleague, being sucked in.  (She is entering a type of palm swamp dominated by Mauritia flexuosa, locally known as an aguajál and important for the fruit that can be harvested there.)

At the end of June, I got back from two months of fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon.  The swamps, the Amazon, Peru, and indeed South America, were all new to me, having spent most of my research career to date searching for remnants of intact peatlands in Southeast Asia.

In the Pastaza-Maranon Foreland Basin (PMFB), a large area of the lowland Amazon within the Department of Loreto, Peru, you’re pushed to find any land that isn’t swampy to walk on.  Mapping projects to date have estimated the peatlands of the PMFB to cover 100,000km2.  One of the reasons I was there, along with six colleagues (from the Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Manchester) and a bunch of exceptional assistants, was to help improve the accuracy of this estimate.  We each had slightly different data gathering agendas, but overall were trying to find out more about the evolution, ecology, condition and value of these peatlands, both from a local and global perspective.

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Washing clothes in Veinte de Enero, on the banks of the Yanayacu river, on one of the many fine evenings after coming back from a sweaty day in the swamps.

My focus, along with that of Luis Andueza (fellow St Andrean) and Charlotte Wheeler (Edinburgh), was to investigate how people value the wetland ecosystems of the PMFB.  Luis formed a key part of the social science team, made up of a great bunch of co-investigators and assistants from the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana (IIAP).  They spent many hours asking many questions of the members of three communities, Veinte de Enero, Nueva Union and Nueva Pandora, living on the banks of the Yanayacu, Chambira and Tigrillo rivers, respectively.  They, incidentally, drank a variety of liquids during the interviews, to facilitate their social integration with the communities!

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The ecological crew I was with, busy measuring what we measure in a plot.  Spot the agile one up the tree.  Never have I seen such heights scaled so quickly, and with such ease!  (I might need to adapt the Risk Assessment for the next trip, however.)

Concurrently, Charlotte and myself, led by our brilliant botanist, Nállarett, and two courageous Field Assistants, Julio S and Julio I, were out exploring the many ecosystems that surrounded these communities.  Our work was, in essence, a big treasure hunt.  Our mission (that I questioned why I’d chosen to accept at various points of inundation!) was to find the gold – the code-word for peat.  We ventured into the environment surrounding the three communities in order to “ground-truth” information of two sorts: (i) ecosystem types/resource extraction locations marked on participatory maps generated by the communities in workshops run by the social science team, and (ii) maps generated through remote sensing (using Landsat imagery) that depict changes in land cover, with the different ‘covers’ yet to be confidently identified or understood from an ecological perspective.  We spent approximately 20 days cutting our way through swampy forests of all shapes and sizes.  When we came across a new ecosystem type, and felt that we could work at that location for two hours without sinking, we gathered data on various above- and below-ground characteristics.  One of the most challenging plots was half a meter under water, at a location aptly named “31 Devils”.  Thankfully, I’ve had previous experience of snorkelling in bogs.

Now that we’re all back on solid ground, we’re starting to explore all of the ecological and interview data collected from the swamps, to try to understand how people use, and importantly, how they value the wetlands ecosystems of the PMFB, as well as understanding the physical characteristics of these ecosystems from a western scientific perspective.  Our initial findings suggest that there are a whole range of forested wetlands used by these communities, composed of a huge diversity of flora on both peat and non-peatlands, and on a confusing mix of peaty-lands in between.  And, not unsurprisingly, people tend to avoid the deeper, looser, more “sucking”, mosquito-ridden swamps, when and where they can!  Sensible folk.  But we still have much to learn about the nuances of how each community values these carbon-rich, biodiverse and beautiful ecosystems.

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Some of the great team, fresh-faced and smiling at the start of our fieldwork campaign!  (One member of the team may have been carried over the swamps in some parts.  Many other members of the team wished someone would carry them over the swamps in all parts.