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.

MICCA materials

One of MICCA’s publications from 2012.

The Mitigation of Climate Change in Agriculture (MICCA) programme of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), has a particularly special branch: the organic soils and peatlands climate change mitigation initiative.  “Launched by FAO, the MICCA Programme and Wetlands International, (it) is an informal network of organizations and people committed to reducing emissions from peatlands and safeguarding the other vital ecosystem services that peatlands provide.”  They have produced all sorts of reports, e.g. on sustainable peatland management, presentations from webinars, case studies and infographics, e.g. this decision support tree, for use by any interested communities.  Members of the initiative also have a keen presence at important gatherings of peatland scientists and practitioners, such as the IUCN UK Peatland Programme (near-)Annual Conference.  Given the challenges of being a small cog in the big UN-monster, the group seems to be doing its best to support sustainable peatland management across the world.

If you’d like to join MICCA’s peatland community, set up to facilitate the exchange of experience and knowledge amongst the wider population of peat lovers, sign up here.

And I think their latest infographic should be made into an elongated tea towel, to educate the everyday dryer-upper of the threats to peat.

Fledging the nest: an early career event for the next generation of Conservation Ecologists

A month ago, on Friday 4th March, I was involved in a workshop for young (as in PhD and postdoc ‘young’) ecologists that aimed to give them the tools they need to nail a career in Conservation Ecology.  With limited funds in conservation (which by no means reflects the funds required by the crisis discipline, as Waldron and his buddies write about here), but an urgent need to get bright, enthusiastic young things to take the reigns, we thought this was an apt event with which to kick-start the revived British Ecology Society Conservation Ecology Special Interest Group (BES ConEco SIG – not much more digestible as an acronym!).  The SIG’s revival is thanks to the hard work, enthusiasm and novel ideas of the unstoppable Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, based at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).  It’s quite an honour to be part of the Committee, and I’m excited by what the future holds for the group and its jolly followers.

My main role during last month’s event was to gather material for some blog posts, to provide post-event information for those that couldn’t attend (it was a sell out!).  Pasted below is the first post I wrote: Blog 1 of a six part series.  I also wrote Blog 4.  The others were written by Claudia, Heather and Kath, and posted on the ZSL Wild Science blog, BES blog and Journal of Applied Ecology’s The Applied Ecologist’s Blog.  Hopefully there are a few bits and bobs of advice that might be useful within.

 

Fledging the nest: an early career event for the next generation of Conservation Ecologists

This piece is written by Lydia Cole, Rezatec, BES Conservation Ecology SIG Liaison Officer@lydcole, Katherine Baldock, University of Bristol, BES Conservation Ecology SIG Early Career Rep @Kath_Baldock, Claudia Gray, Zoological Society of London, BES Conservation Ecology SIG Communications Officer @ClaudiaLGray, Heather Crump, Aberystwyth University, BES Conservation Ecology SIG Early Career Rep @hec72012

This blog has also been posted on the BES and ZSL Wild Science blogs.

event 1

Last Friday heralded the first training event of the revived BES Conservation Ecology Special Interest Group: an interactive workshop for Early Career Conservation Ecologists. Jointly hosted by the Zoological Society of London and the British Ecological Society, the event brought together a herd of experts, working in fields ranging from journal editing, to university lecturing and policy, to guide early career attendees through five interactive sessions.

The philosophy behind the day was to provide an active learning opportunity where the bright, enthusiastic cohort of PhDs and postdocs currently trying to enter the world of conservation could learn a range of skills that would better equip them for this challenge. And they flocked in their numbers, with over 65 gathering at the London Zoo, in view of the kangaroos, having travelled from as far afield as Falmouth to the south and Durham to the north.

Universities are busy places, full of busy supervisors, who do not always have the time to impart knowledge on how the world (of conservation) works and how best to get into it; this workshop attempted to bring that knowledge into one room and encourage the early career enthusiasts to tap into it.

The day was divided into five sessions, each an hour long, where participants spread themselves across five thematic groups:

  1. Funding
  2. Press and online media profile building
  3. Networking and CV development for non-academic careers
  4. Interview skills for academic careers
  5. Publishing

event 2

At each ‘station’ ( = a round table + experts x 2 + useful materials + Post-its (of course!)), attendees were asked to perform a series of tasks to engage them with the theme, ranging from seeing how many “useful” new contacts they could make in a quick-fire networking break-out, to matching abstracts to journals, drafting a BES small grant application and put together a communication strategy for a paper about to be published. In between tasks, there was plenty of time to mine the knowledge of the experts, who must have answered several thousand questions over the course of the day (thank you, experts!). And throughout, there was not a lecture in sight!

Informal feedback tells us it was a day well received:

To mark the event and share the knowledge gained from it, we will be running a series of blogs over the coming fortnight, with each post focusing one of the five workshop themes. So if you missed the event, check out the blogs….and watch out for the invitation to #conscareers17!

And remember: you can easily keep up-to-date with the Conservation Ecology SIG news by following us on Twitter @BESConservation and Facebook through the BES Conservation Ecology group page. Alternatively, you can join our mailing list by dropping an email toNathalie.Pettorelli@ioz.ac.uk

It’s not rocket science.

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

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

I wonder what MPOB will conclude.

 

My name is PEAT!

(Thank you, RSPB website.)

I stumbled/googled upon this a few days ago, and thought it was too good to go unreported.  Led by the rap artist, Ed Holden, a bunch of superstars from Pentrefoelas and Ysbyty Ifan Schools (had to copy and paste those names) have joined forces to show us all how important looking after our peatlands is.  It is half in Welsh.  And it is wholly inspired.

Of a slightly different tone,  The Importance of Scotland’s Peatlands also hit the big (YouTube) screen at the start of the month.  Another informative watch if you feel your knowledge of peat is wanting.

And whilst I’m posting about creative projects that can spread information and inspire interest for these precious ecosystems, here is the winner of the World Wetlands Day Poetry Prize: In My Other Life, by Virginia Creer.

The A(FC) Team.

I’ve been meaning to write this short ‘shout-out’ post ever since I joined the team.  Definitely better late than never though, especially since Action For Conservation are very much in their infancy: they’ve fledged the nest, but aren’t yet soaring over the human-dominated matrix that blankets much of England.

Action for Conservation (the AFC team) was born out of Oxford University’s MSc. in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management, when several astute and enthusiastic graduates, and their young-professional friends, observed a large gap in environmental education in UK secondary schools.  Along with the curriculum cavity in teaching, the neglect of exposing students to ‘nature’ (whatever that is exactly), the lack of explaining the complexity of environmental change and anthropogenic impact, there seemed little to no opportunity for young people to learn how to get involved in conservation themselves, whether as a volunteer or as a professional.  Do students even know what conservation means?  Do you have to spend most of your time smelly and in trees to be a conservationist?  Or live in Africa with lions?

Nope.  And these are some of the common misconceptions the AFC Team are trying to rebuff.  With only one paid member of staff (an excellent, hardworking one at that, Ms. Huggett), the majority of the educating is done by a team of volunteers (AFC Gurus, e.g.), themselves young professions somehow involved in conservation work.  I am honoured to be one of these.  We go into secondary schools (or forests) across the country and run an hour to three hours workshop where the students generally spend more time pretending to be a Lynx than sitting down on their bottoms.  Our aim is to have them able to answer these three questions by the end of the fun-shop:

  1. What is conservation?
  2. What range of different careers, jobs, hobbies, games, food choices, local activities….come under the conservation umbrella?
  3. How can I get involved in conservation?

Once they’ve realised that sitting on the floor won’t kill them, that peat is not disgusting, and that it’s as cool to know about hockeystick fish as it is about Justin Bieber, they become captivated by the words coming from these enthusiastic, sometimes bearded, young mouths.

Conservationists are so cool, they think, I hope.

If you’re a budding AFC Guru, or would like to get involved in any way, do get in touch with the team by emailing info@actionforconservation.org or follow them on Twitter (@Action4Conserv).  And to whet your appetite, here is the inspiring January 2016 Newsletter.  I support this initiative 100% and am so happy to be involved.  This AFC Team has a vital mission: to spread a passion for the natural, and semi-natural world, and instill in people a responsibility to sustainably manage it NOW.  And who better to start spreading the message to than the ones who still know how to listen, them kids.

C-PEAT inauguration

Here is a brief report I wrote for the UK Tropical Peatland Working Group (TPWG) blog last week, on the recent C-PEAT meeting convened at Columbia University in New York, for which I was honoured to attend as an early career scientist.

About a month ago, from the 11th to 13th October, 52 scientists met at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York, to discuss peat.  The meeting was convened by Zicheng Yu from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, who was responsible for garnering support for this working group of PAGES.  The newly fledged C-PEAT, Carbon in Peat on EArth through Time, aims to bring together peat scientists from across the world and from a range of disciplines, to answer questions about how carbon in peatlands has changed throughout the past and how it might vary into the future.  I was fortunate enough to attend the meeting, along with Ian Lawson and various others that have or are still working with the UKTPWG, including Outi Lähteenoja.  Here is a brief report of the meeting.

C-PEATColumbia.JPG

The meeting crew, getting the C-PEAT ball rolling.

The main questions that led discussions during the workshop were:

  • Why is there peat?
  • How much and how fast can peats accumulate?
  • What will happen to peat in the future?

By the end of the three days, I think we were closer to knowing more clearly about what we don’t know, than to actually answering these questions!  But we exchanged a huge amount of new information in the process, some of which I’ve reported on below, under each question.

Why is there peat?

We spent one break-out session seeing if we could provide new insights into what the critical controls on peat formation might be.  After learning from the talks about the huge range of peatlands present today and during the past, from the diverse forested swamps of Papua New Guinea, to the high-altitude Andean ‘cushion’ peats, to the organic-rich sediments buried under glacial tills in Canada, all with their differing physical parameters, this proved challenging.  As did attempts at making generalisations about peat formation through time; time being hundreds of millions of years.  One scientist aptly commented that “coal is carbon; peat is water”, which helps to explain part of the picture!  There were a number of discussions about deep-time peats and coal, and whether we could make inferences on their development dynamics based on more recent peat formations.  A work in progress (by the Deep-time andBuried Peats Thematic Groups).

How much and how fast can peats accumulate?

What are the differences/similarities in peat accumulation rates along different temporal and spatial gradients?  Answers on a postcard please.  In a very interesting presentation, René Dommain, Smithsonian Institute, presented on tip-up pools in tropical peatland ecosystems and the importance of considering them when interpreting age-depth modelling and peat accumulation dynamics.  Rene’s fieldwork focused on the coastal peat domes of Brunei, but some other spectacular and more unexpected domes and craters were brought to everyone’s attention:

*Numbers not verified – may have passed through multiple Chinese whispers.

IMG_20151013_083842025.jpg

Breakfast chats (about peat?!) in the sunshine, at the Lamont-Doherty campus of Columbia University.

What will happen to peat in the future?

Where will new peat formations arise?  Where will peats disappear?  And where will they persist?

Will bogs persist with greater frequency than fens?  Nigel Roulet, McGill University, presented on the greater resilience of bogs compared to fens, with bogs maintaining hydrological independence from the surrounding environment and therefore being more able to resist the potential impacts of climate change.  Jeff Chanton, Florida State University, talked about the SPRUCE mega-project he’s involved with, in the Marcell Experimental Forest in Northern Minnesota, which is attempting to monitor how temperate peatlands respond to changes in climate.  Watch this space for the release of the experiment’s findings.

Ian Lawson, University of St. Andrews (and key member of the UKTPWG), presented on what we know about the tropical lowland peatlands of the Peruvian Amazon.  He also talked about the threats to their persistence, one of which was an unlikely suspect: aboveground carbon maps, which demonstrate the relatively lower standing carbon stocks in peatland areas compared to in terra firme forests, and fail to illustrate their rich belowground carbon store.  Ian highlighted the danger of these maps being used in land use decision-making in Peru, potentially erroneously directing forest conversion to these carbon rich areas.  And these peatlands don’t have the emotive conservation pin-up that their Southeast Asian relatives have.

Steve Frolking, University of New Hampshire, presented an analysis on carbon losses from tropical peatlands under different land use change scenarios into the next 50 years.  An interesting desk-based exercise that warns of the strong emissions legacy of the peatland management practices that are pervasive across much of Southeast Asia now.

One major area of peatland that we still know so little about was sadly not represented at the meeting: the peat swamps of Central Africa.  Perhaps that gap can be filled by members of this group at the next meeting.  There was also a distinct lack of anyone named Pete there.

As we move into the Anthropeatscene (!), we need to consider exactly what and where the threats to peatland persistence are.  And what the opportunities are for peatland conservation.  I’m sure everyone is aware of the fires that have been raging in Indonesian peatlands over the last few months (if not, look at this and this previous post), exacerbated to a great degree by unsustainable peatland management.  One big question the workshop considered was: what unique contribution can C-PEAT make as a group to peatland science and conservation, in both the tropical and temperate zone?

If you have the answer, or indeed any answers to the questions above….or are working on them, do join the C-PEAT mailing list by signing up here.