Peat can store tons of CO2, but human impacts are disturbing these delicate ecosystems.
Peat is a rich layer of soil consisting of partially decomposed organic matter that forms because the waterlogged and low-oxygen conditions of these ecosystems result in extremely slow decomposition. As a result, carbon dioxide used by plants for photosynthesis is stored indefinitely in peat instead of being released back into the atmosphere when they decompose. Thus, peatlands are incredibly efficient at storing carbon: only three percent of the Earth’s land surface is known to be occupied by peatlands yet they store twice the amount of carbon as the Earth’s forests, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Peatlands around the world store about 600 gigatons of carbon, and while peat can store carbon, it can also release it.
If water is drained from a peat ecosystem, the peat can begin to dry up, and vegetation can decompose faster, which releases trapped carbon. Global warming causes a positive feedback loop because, as the climate warms and evaporation rates increase, the peat ecosystems dry and decompose. This releases carbon and warms the planet more.
Scientists fear that global warming may cause peatlands that are frozen under permafrost — which are found in some parts of Canada, Siberia, and Russia — to defrost and emit catastrophically large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane. Additionally, if the area around a bog gets too hot (from increased average temperatures), the bog may burn, releasing centuries of stored carbon into the atmosphere. Impaired, drained, or burnt peatlands emit approximately two billion tons of carbon dioxide annually worldwide, which accounted for more than five percent of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions in 2021.
In Indonesia, large swaths of peatlands have been drained for palm oil or pulp and paper plantations, making them more prone to burning. Indonesia’s peatlands reached a tipping point in 2015, when 623,304 hectares burned, costing the Indonesian government sixteen billion dollars and releasing over eight hundred million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Because peat fires do not require much oxygen to continue burning, and the heat from a peat fire can travel many meters underground, firefighters had an incredibly difficult time quelling the inferno. This caused the fires to rage for three months, with devastating effect.
This issue is becoming more common each year; in the summer of 2023, peatland fires plagued Alberta, a region made up of twenty percent peatland cover, for months on end. The consequences of peat soil disturbance are dire, so researchers are looking into the efficacy of different peatland restoration techniques. Research shows that obstructing drainage canals and planting native plants can help restore peatlands by increasing water retention. In turn, this decreases the likelihood of peatlands burning. Nevertheless, these techniques are resource- and time-intensive, and scientists are unsure if peatlands are able to return to their original health after extreme disturbances. Currently, conservationists suggest trying to prevent peat soil disturbances in the first place, rather than trying to fix them after the fact.
First and foremost, do not purchase peat compost (also known as sphagnum moss or peat moss) under any circumstance. The extraction of peat soils for consumer use releases vast amounts of carbon dioxide. In fact, this practice is so harmful that the sale of peat-containing products is banned in several countries, such as the United Kingdom. Secondly, try to consume fewer products containing palm oil, as peatlands are often cleared for palm oil and pulp and paper plantations, animal grazing, or the production of crops to feed animals. These habits will reduce your overall environmental footprint and limit the severity of the anthropogenic greenhouse effect. Finally, educate those around you about this issue and lobby your government representatives to push for the preservation of peatlands.