Congo Basin - Take decaying plant material, add waterlogged conditions and extract oxygen. Mix over thousands of years, choosing freezing, moderate or tropical temperatures. The resulting dish is called peatlands and will likely be of soggy appearance.
Peatlands cover around 3-5 percent of the total global land surface and account for around half of the world’s wetlands. Surprisingly varied in terrain, they stretch over more than 180 countries – from high mountain areas, to tropical rainforests, to subarctic regions.
Although there is a lack of consistent and accepted global mapping of peatlands, a number of different charts are available – including from the Center for International Forestry Research’s (CIFOR) Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation Program and in a variety of academic studies.
MORE COMMON IN COLD
The general proportions of global distribution are undisputed.
“We know that the vast majority of peatlands can be found in colder climates, in temperate or boreal areas,” explains Sufyan Kurnianto, a PhD researcher associated with CIFOR. “Studies have shown that non-tropical regions are home to up to 90 percent of the world’s peatlands.”
In countries and states like Alaska, Canada and Russia, peat can be built up in different environments, including under permafrost near the pole – ground that has been frozen for at least two years. Canada alone is thought to have around a third of the world’s peatlands, covering around 14 percent of the country’s territory. Peatlands also stretch across countries like Ireland and Scotland in Western Europe.
Peatlands in this zone are commonly known as bogs or fens. Bogs are sticky bowls of peat that source their water only from rainfall or snow. They generally form over layers of bedrock and have the least nutrients of any kind of wetland. Fens tend to be more luscious, with water filtering through from streams or lakes, and the ability to host a greater range of flora and fauna.
Tropical climates are home to around one in ten of global peatlands. Peat swamp forests, that harbour a huge range of animal and plant life, can be found in parts of Africa, the Caribbean and Central and South America. However, 68 percent of all tropical peatlands are located in Southeast Asia. Indonesia is the country with the most tropical peat swamp and mangrove forests on earth – with around 21 million hectares of tropical peat swamp forests and 3 million hectares of mangroves. That’s half of all the world’s tropical peat swamp forests and almost a quarter of its mangroves. Nonetheless, the largest tropical peatland was recently charted in the Congo Basin between Congo Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“Huge reserves had been suspected in the Congo Basin,” says Kurnianto. “Now the exact details of the store have been confirmed after years of analysis of peat and satellite data.”
PEATLANDS IN DANGER
Peatlands are of huge environmental importance. Not only do they provide livelihoods for local communities and shelter endangered animals and plants, they also house enormous stores of carbon. In fact they contain more than 30 percent of carbon stored in soil worldwide, twice as much carbon as is found in all the world’s forests and four times as much as the atmosphere. The recent find in the Congo Basin alone is estimated to account for nearly 30 percent of the world’s tropical peatland carbon.
Because of its high carbon content, when peat dries or is set alight, very high levels of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. Not only does this stoke climate change, it also causes serious public health issues. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, less than 0.4 percent of the world’s surface is made up of drained or degrading peatlands, but these account for 5 percent of all global emissions produced directly by human activities.
Peat is being dried or set alight for a number of reasons. Near the poles, permafrost is thawing and causing peat to dry out. In western Europe, 90 percent of peatlands have already been lost due to issues including its use as fuel, drainage for forestry, and urban development.
However, peat is in more danger in some parts of the world than in others.
“Tropical peatlands face the greatest threats,” says Kurnianto. “They are located on flat ground that can be accessed by humans very easily and as such they are very vulnerable to development.”
Many, particularly in Indonesia, are being drained, cleared and set alight to make way for agricultural plantations that produce palm oil and wood pulp. In the peatlands of Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo alone, forest cover fell by more than half between 1990 and 2010 – from 77 percent to 36 percent. After the huge forest fires in Indonesia in 2015, researchers found that 884 million tonnes of carbon dioxide were released in the region, with 97 percent coming from Indonesia. Global warming and weather phenomenons like El Niño also have a drying effect.
A number of global, national and local initiatives are working to stop the exploitation of peatlands, map their existence and restore them as far as possible, including The Global Peatlands Initiative. In May, international experts will gather in Jakarta, Indonesia, for a special Global Landscapes Forum on why Peatlands Matter.
As the area and volume of peat continues to decline the world over, rapid and concerted action is required to preserve the future of these unique landscapes, in all their forms and locations.