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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.