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!
I’m re-postingthis 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: Arerenewable 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’.
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.
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.
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.
Back in January, I published a short piece on an interdisciplinary workshop that I’d run with Althea Davies and Kath Allen at the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting in December 2019, in Belfast….back when many people gathered together in small spaces, and hugged. Today, the Relational Thinking blog of the BES’s Journal People and Nature, published the extended write-up of the event and our learnings from it. Please have a gander if you’re interested. Preparing it recently for publication, both Althea and I remembered how exciting and stimulating it had been for us to run the event and reflect on it afterwards. We are currently working on extending and sharing our learning, and that of several invited others, in a new Guide to Better Science, which we hope to be published by the BES next summer. Hopefully these resources provide some structure and inspiration for interdisciplinary endeavours out there, be them in person or on Zoom!
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.
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 just been included in this article, written to celebrate International Women’s Day: Ten BES women you should know about. Probably a networking-related turn of events that meant I was on the author’s mind, but I thank her very much for including me. “They” always says this…but it really is an honour to be on this list with those other babes. I will endeavour to keep putting my energy into things that I believe are important – engaging people in ecology and conservation, building the confidence and vision of individuals and nurturing kind communities.
And here’s a poem for these times that a hugely inspiring female friend sent me:
Here is a short report on the latest meeting of the UK TPWG, written by Lydia Cole.
On 30th January, Prof Sue Page and Dr Sara Thornton hosted a meeting of the UK Tropical Peatland Working Group (UK TPWG). An assortment of researchers gathered for one day at the University of Leicester, to present their work and discuss how the group can be more effective in the realm of tropical peatland science and responsible management. Attendees successfully navigated the UK rail network from as far as Exeter on the south coast to St Andrews on the east coast of Scotland. The most junior member of the group had a baptism of fire as the meeting marked the first day of his PhD – well done, Abdul!
Donna Hawthorne presenting on her palaeoecological component of the mega-CongoPeat project. (Credit: Lydia Cole.)
The day started with brief introductions from everyone present…
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
On 12th December 2019, mid-way through the British Ecology Society‘s Annual Meeting in Belfast, Althea Davies (Chair of the Palaeoecology SIG) and myself (Chair of the Conservation Ecology SIG) led a workshop entitled: Tools of the Interdisciplinary Trade: how to make your interdisciplinary project a success. We were joined by Dr Kath Allen, a NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow from the Institute of Integrative Biology, University of Liverpool, whom expertly facilitated the workshop.
Workshop participants deep in interdisciplinary chat. Over 50 people come along to the lunchtime session, most of whom are currently engaged in interdisciplinary projects. After introducing ourselves and theme of the workshop, we split everyone into four groups to discuss the main challenges they have faced in different stages of a research project. We also, importantly, asked that they propose potential solutions to these challenges, and feed them back to the group.